Sharing Experiences and Stressors at Work and at Home: A Model of Work-Linked Couples
Work-linked couples are couples who are connected in some way by their work. We focus on understanding work-life experiences of one type of work-linked couple – dual-military couples, or those couples in which both spouses are enlisted or commissioned by the military. Our goal was to develop a model that not only explains and predicts dual-military couples’ experiences, but also extends beyond this specific group and provides a conceptual model for work-linked couples in all occupational settings. Data from 82 soldiers whose spouses were also in the military were collected during 19 focus groups. We conducted an inductive analysis on transcripts of the focus groups to guide the discovery of themes. Second, a deductive process was used to apply components of the dual-military model to themes that emerged during inductive coding. We identified a set of 11 specific themes, organized into the two main areas of Time and Planning and Boundary Separation and Integration. Implications for theory and practice are discussed.
KeywordsWork-linked couple Work-family Work stress Spillover theory Cross-over theory
Workforce demographics have changed considerably over time. Gone are the days where men vastly outnumbered women in the workforce, replaced instead by roughly equal gender proportions across a variety of occupations. With these changes have come an increase in dual-earner couples, with more than three-quarters of married employees reporting that both they and their spouses are employed (Bond et al. 2003). While there has been a substantial increase in scholarly attention given to dual-earner couples over the past few decades, research on one specific type of dual-earner couple is still in its infancy. Namely, work-linked couples, or those couples who are connected in some way by their work (e.g., share an occupation but not a workplace, share a workplace but not an occupation, or share both; Halbesleben et al. 2010), have only recently begun to garner attention from researchers.
While the research on work-linked couples remains scarce, Ferguson et al. (2016) recently noted that “organizations and their members have much to gain from continued and intensive study of these unique work–family situations” (p. 11). Of the few studies that examine work-linked couples, the majority focus on the positive effects of being in a work-linked couple (e.g., Halbesleben et al. 2010; Janning and Neely 2006). A few themes have emerged in the literature on work-linked couples. For example, researchers have shown that the boundary between work and home is more permeable for work-linked couples than for other dual-earner couples (Halbesleben et al. 2010; Janning and Neely 2006). In this manner, members of work-linked couples may be in a better position than those in other dual-earner couples to be supportive of each other with regard to their jobs (Halbesleben et al. 2012). In a similar vein, Moen and Sweet (2002) found that when a couple shares a workplace, they exhibit higher levels of both positive and negative spillover between work and home than do other dual-earner couples. This is further supported and exemplified by research showing that a couple’s work-linked status (i.e., sharing an occupation, a workplace, both, or neither) was associated with changes in level of work-family integration (Janning and Neely 2006). Specifically, Janning and Neely found that couples who share a workplace conversed more about work when they were at home than the other groups, while couples sharing an occupation but not a workplace communicated more about family matters while at work than the other groups. Additionally, Halbesleben et al. (2010) found a negative relationship between spouse instrumental support and emotional exhaustion, and that this relationship was stronger for work-linked couples compared to other couple types. These findings suggest that instrumental support from one’s partner is more effective at reducing emotional exhaustion when a couple is connected through their work. One other study (Ferguson et al. 2016) has provided support for some of the positive effects of being in a work-linked marriage by showing that it moderated the relationships between work-related spousal support and work-family balance, job satisfaction, and family satisfaction, such that those in work-linked marriages exhibited stronger relationships between these variables. The current study builds on this past research and introduces a comprehensive model of work-linked couples.
We focus on understanding the work-life experiences of one type of work-linked couple – dual-military couples (i.e., couples in which both spouses are enlisted or commissioned by the military, Huffman and Payne 2006). The military is just one occupation in which work-linked couples are not uncommon, with others including professions such as academia (Schiebinger et al. 2008) and medicine (e.g., Sobecks et al. 1999). In building a framework to understand work-linked couples we utilize Halbesleben et al.’s (2010) conceptualization of work-linked relationships, as well as Huffman and Payne’s (2006) dual-military model. Our goal was to develop a model that not only explains and predicts dual-military couples’ experiences, but also extends beyond this specific group and provides a conceptual model for work-linked couples in other occupational settings.
Our study contributes to the literature in several distinct ways. First, we build upon Ferguson et al.’s (2016) suggestion that “to provide a more complete view of support in dual career couples, future research may benefit from a more comprehensive model that simultaneously explores strain and support in work-linked couples” (p. 11). As mentioned above, we integrate Halbesleben et al.’s (2010) conceptualization of work-linked relationships and Huffman and Payne’s (2006) dual-military model as guiding frameworks in understanding individuals in work-linked marriages, focusing on both challenges and benefits experienced by members of these couples. Second, we use a focus group methodology that does not constrain participant responses. This methodology allows us to further develop an emerging model that can be used as a guiding framework to understand work-linked couples. Whereas the current literatures provide fragmented snapshots of work-linked couples’ experiences, the goal of the current study is to integrate key aspects of the literature and develop a comprehensive model that not only explains antecedents and consequences of being in a work-linked relationship, but also identifies unique factors that make them different from the more studied dual-career couples. Finally, we focus on one type of work-linked couple – dual-military couples. Focusing on one occupation within the work-linked umbrella allows for a more fine-tuned analysis of work-linked couples. Work-linked couples have been described as having more integrative roles between work and family (Janning 1999, 2006; Janning and Neely 2006), which is particularly true for military couples (Huffman and Payne 2006). Although there are many similarities between military and civilian work-linked couples, the military context does provide some unique differences. For example, military families are more likely to experience prolonged separation than families in other occupations due to deployments, training missions, and being stationed separately (Redmond et al. 2015). Furthermore, this separation can include deployments to potentially dangerous locations. Additionally, while other occupations may experience similar conditions, military personnel often experience long and unpredictable work hours, and major schedule and relocation changes with little or no notice (Hall 2016). While these characteristics are somewhat unique to military careers, they provide for strong conditions in which to examine experiences of work-linked couples.
We draw from several theories to describe and predict work-linked couples work and family behavior. The dual-military model (Huffman and Payne 2006), which utilizes spillover (Staines 1980) theory and tenets associated with the crossover process (Bolger et al. 1989; Westman and Etzion 1995), helps explain how two individuals who are married and work for the same work organization (i.e., the military) navigate their work and home roles and experience positive and negative outcomes. In addition, research on work-linked couples (e.g., Halbesleben et al. 2010) has utilized boundary management theory (Ashforth et al. 2000) in identifying the ways in which work-linked couples manage their work and home lives.
Spillover theory (Staines 1980) describes the reciprocal (positive and negative) experiences that occur between one’s home and work domains. Work-nonwork spillover is defined as “effects of work and family on one another that generate similarities between the two domains” (Edwards and Rothbard 2000, p. 180). An example of work-nonwork spillover is when an employee receives negative criticism for poor job performance at work and then goes home and is irritable with his or her children because of the negative experience at work. Crossover (Bolger et al. 1989; Westman 2001), on the other hand, occurs when emotions or attitudes from one individual (e.g., one spouse) transfer to another individual (e.g., the other spouse). Crossover effects are defined as “a dyadic, inter-individual transmission of stress or strain” (Westman 2001, p. 718). Schooreel and Verbruggen further describe crossover as when “one partner’s strain, attitudes, behaviors, and choices may affect the other partner’s strain, attitudes, behaviors and choices” (2016, p. 120). Using the same example, negative crossover occurs if the employee’s agitation due to negative criticism experienced at work leads to that employee’s spouse becoming correspondingly upset. Given that crossover can also occur between coworkers (Bakker et al. 2009), the probability of a dual work-nonwork spillover-crossover experience is likely more prevalent in work-linked couples. When work-nonwork spillover and crossover result in increased demands or decreased resources, negative occupational health would be expected. Conversely, when work-nonwork spillover and/or crossover result in reduced demands or heightened resources, positive effects on occupational health would be expected.
Conflicts between work and family are generally associated with increasing demands and/or reducing resources for individuals. Such conflicts can assume three different forms; time-based, strain-based, and behavior-based (Greenhaus and Beutell 1985). Time-based conflict involves a temporal element such as needing to work late and subsequently missing family activities. Strain-based conflict occurs when psychological demands from one domain generate problems in the other domain, such as when stress experienced at work creates an inability to concentrate at home or communicate effectively with one’s family. Finally, behavior-based conflict occurs when behavior that is more appropriate or effective in one domain spills into the other domain where it may be less appropriate. For example, police officers may be expected to be forceful in some interactions, yet the same behaviors at home may lead to dysfunctional interactions with family members.
According to the dual-military model, dual-military members experience both occupation specific (e.g., separation from family) and dual-earner specific challenges (e.g., role overload), in addition to occupation specific (e.g., family-friendly benefits) and dual-earner specific benefits (e.g., shared experiences). Although the examples above were all work-specific, these challenges and benefits can originate in both the work and family domain, and can affect both military members. The stressors in each domain (e.g., home) can spillover to the other domain (e.g., work), which can affect family, and can also crossover between the two spouses. These multi-level, multi-domain factors can interact and affect the attitudes, behavior, and wellbeing of the military member. It should be noted that while many of the specific challenges and benefits examined in the model are not unique to dual-military or dual-career individuals, like all occupations, there are challenges and benefits that may be experienced differently due to the unique nature of the dual-military marriage.
Ashforth et al. (2000) describe boundary transitions as disengaging from one role and engaging in another (e.g., going from home to work), which involves surmounting a boundary that stands between the roles. As individuals move from home to work and back again, they repeatedly cross these boundaries (Zerubavel 1991), which can be physical, such as the distance traveled between home and work, or psychological, such as changing one’s mindset from being a parent to being an employee. Boundary theory (Ashforth et al. 2000) suggests that individuals will attempt to make boundary transitions easier. Due to physical or psychological boundaries, as well as personal preference (Hartmann 1997), individuals can experience varying levels of role integration, in which individuals seek to assimilate their work and family roles, versus role segmentation, in which individuals aim to disconnect the two roles. Research suggests that work-linked couples experience more integrated work and home roles, having less of a boundary between them (Halbesleben et al. 2010).
This continuum between boundary integration and segmentation was used to show that employees can vary in their boundary management abilities and preferences (Bulger, Matthews, & Hoffman, 2007). Employees can be considered to be spread along the boundary integration-segmentation continuum and to vary on different domains of boundary integration. For example, employees who are able and prefer to bring work to their homes and personal matters into their work lives would be profiled on the integration end of the continuum, while those who are unable and/or prefer not to, exist on the segmentation end of the continuum. In the context of this study, work-linked couples may have more or less ability to integrate their roles depending on specific work situations. For example, if one partner in a work-linked couple is able and desires to bring family matters into the workplace, the other partner may automatically be in a more integrated situation, regardless of their preferences. Therefore, work-linked couples need to develop strategies for navigating their more complicated boundary management preferences and abilities.
Research Question 1: What key factors play a role in the wellbeing of individuals in work-linked marriage?
Research Question 2. What role does work-nonwork spillover and spousal crossover play in work-linked marriages?
Research Question 3: How are work-linked couples similar to and different from non-work-linked dual-career couples?
Data for this study come from a larger study examining stressors in dual-military, dual-career, and single-earner households within the military. Data were collected via focus groups from July 2013 to January 2015 from active duty U.S. Army personnel on six different Army installations across the United States. The full study was reviewed and approved by an internal review board at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (the Office of Research Management and the Human Use Research Committee) and by the university of the first author. An Army research support program that facilitates data collection from military personnel across the country assisted in this research. We requested volunteers who were in specific marital categories to participate during duty hours. For this study, only data from dual-military individuals were used. While all data reported here were from individuals in dual-military marriages, both members of a couple did not consistently share the same duty station, military occupational specialty (MOS), or rank.
For this study, we conducted 19 focus groups with dual-military individuals. Of the 82 participants in these focus groups, approximately half were Caucasian (51.6%) and female (45.1%). Over half of focus group respondents (57.5%) were married for fewer than two years. Approximately half of respondents did not have children (50.6%), and those who had children often only had one child in the household (57.5%). Most respondents were co-stationed with their spouse (82.3%).
The setting in which focus groups were conducted varied by location. Some occurred in formal conference rooms, while others were in other available facilities (e.g., break rooms). The focus groups lasted approximately 45 min and included an average of four respondents (range: 2–7), one facilitator, and one assistant. Focus groups consisted of standardized questions that were posed to the group, with probes as needed to elicit more details. Questions asked in the focus groups concerned issues such as spouse’s role in their job, challenges of working for the same organization, and how they deal with the challenges. Questions were designed using Halbesleben et al.’s (2010) conceptualization of work-linked relationships, boundary theory (Ashforth et al. 2000), and Huffman and Payne’s (2006) dual-military model as overarching frameworks, with the aim of obtaining information on the unique challenges of work-linked couples related to work and family roles, performance in both domains, coping strategies, and organizational resource use and accessibility. Sample questions included: “What is it like being in a dual military marriage?” “What are some of the challenges associated with being in a dual military marriage?” and “How do you cope with these challenges?”
Follow-up questions were used as appropriate to deepen the researchers’ understanding of topics raised by respondents. All focus groups were audio-recorded and transcribed afterwards by the research team.
Focus group interviews were transcribed using Express Scribe Pro. Then, transcriptions were coded using qualitative analysis software (QSR NVivo, Version 10). Consistent with best practices in qualitative research (Fereday and Muir-Cochrane 2006; Thomas 2006), coding occurred in two main steps. First, an inductive analysis, drawing from elements included in grounded theory (Corbin and Strauss 1990) and qualitative content analysis (QCA; Mayring 2000), was used to guide the discovery of themes. Second, a deductive process was used to answer the research questions and apply components of the dual-military model (Huffman and Payne 2006) to the themes that emerged during the inductive coding. Themes fitting the model were retained and organized according to relationships specified in the Huffman and Payne model (2006). Finally, the resulting themes and organization were compared to the original transcripts in order to determine consistency of the transcript data with the model and to identify any overlooked and meaningful subthemes. Additional details regarding these steps follow.
Step one: Inductive open coding
The first step in our analyses involved inductive coding in which coders (trained graduate students led by a faculty member trained in qualitative methodology) read assigned sets of transcripts and identified initial comprehensive themes across all transcripts. Each transcript was read and coded by multiple members of the coding team. After this first pass of coding, the research team met to discuss the distribution of initial themes across transcripts and between different coders. Common and meaningful themes were nominated, and those agreed upon unanimously by the team were compiled into a list that coders could reference as they evaluated the degree to which these themes corresponded with specific text within the transcripts. At this point, the transcripts were assigned to different coders within the original team of coders. The coders read the transcripts a final time to determine the applicability of the potential themes. The research team then met again to discuss the coders’ determinations and refine the coding themes. This inductive approach resulted in 38 themes, which were then entered into NVivo with accompanying definitions. Next, the coding team met to collaboratively code four transcripts in order to ensure mutual understanding of the application of the themes to the transcripts. The team then separately coded transcripts, with each transcript being coded by at least two coders. Coding disagreements were discussed in dyads until consensus was obtained. If consensus was not reached in the dyad, the coding disagreement was brought to the full team for discussion and resolution.
Step two: Applying a model
Original and current themes
Time and planning
PCS and MOS (RANK)
Inadequate family time
Balance work and family
Long-term family planning
Challenges managing schedules
Division of labor
Support extended family
Boundary separation and integration
Support immediate family
Support non-military friends
Worry over family
Support not otherwise specified
Perceptions of others
Support organizational and programs
Support outside institution
Well being individual general
Day to day family function
Work performance and satisfaction
Work family negative
Work family positive
Work family roles
Long term family planning
Lack of support
Definitions were developed for the final 11 themes. Additionally, a comprehensive set of search terms were created for each theme to allow for coding of the transcripts into these new themes. Within NVivo, each coder used the text query function to search for the pre-specified terms within each transcript. If a search term was found within a quote, the quote and surrounding text were read in order to understand the context. Based on this understanding, the coder then decided whether to code the quote under that specific theme. This process was used to code the 11 themes within each of the 19 dual-military focus group transcripts.
The research questions (What key factors play a role in the wellbeing of individuals in work-linked marriage? What role does work-nonwork spillover and spousal crossover play in work-linked marriages? How are work-linked couples similar to and different from non-work-linked dual-career couples?) yielded two areas that had a strongly thematic presence in the focus groups: 1) Time and Planning, and 2) Boundary Separation and Integration. Within each of these main areas, themes are discussed and illustrated with selected quotes. In order to protect participant identities while still presenting valuable information, pseudonyms are used for each participant.
Time and Planning
Among the stressors mentioned by participants in the current study, respondents frequently discussed the negative work-nonwork spillover resulting from issues related to time and planning. For respondents, long and unpredictable work hours for both spouses combined with family demands led to inadequate time with family and difficulty maintaining schedules. Furthermore, respondents identified specific strategies for and challenges in navigating these experiences such as dividing home tasks between spouses and utilizing detailed planning techniques. These issues were discussed in every focus group (19/19; 100% FG).
Inadequate Family Time
“For me it’s basically time, like we barely have time together. Sometimes I’m at night shift, he on day shift or he in night shift and I’m in day shift…We work in the same battalion, so it shouldn’t be an issue, but always happen[s].” (Heidi, married 1 year, no children)
“I have a seven-month-old and by the time we get home, we don’t get home until six o’clock, and then by the time I feed him, give him a bath, it’s time for him to go to bed. So I get to spend less than an hour with him during the week. So my husband, depending on what time he gets home, he may not get to spend any time with him at all. So the only time he can see him is when we get him up at 5 o’clock in the morning.” (Rose, married 1.5 years, one child)
“You don’t always get to be there for everything…you’re going to miss birthdays, holidays - all that stuff. So the family life can suffer.” (Anthony, married 2 years, one child)
The above quotes highlight negative work-nonwork spillover that occurs for individuals in work-linked marriages.
Long-term Family Planning
“I was telling my husband that one day when I decide to get pregnant, I don’t know if I can stay in the Army, because I think that’s really, really hard.” (Kristina, married 2 months, no children)
“That’s why I’m 5 years and no kids yet. I couldn’t leave my kid and deploy, especially the first year. Maybe the second year, because my kid could stay with my mom, but that’s why I have postponed having kids because I’ve been deployed 3 times. That’s like every other year that I’ve been in the military. I came in, trained up, deployed. Came back, trained up, deployed. Came here, stood up with a new brigade, trained up, deployed. And then now, my unit, if I stay here I will be deploying again.” (Kristina, married 2 months, no children)
“The biggest thing for us is we want to start a family and I, hats off to you guys that have kids and dual military because I couldn’t imagine having that one more thing to throw into the mix already. It’s just crazy to me, so we can’t really see that, so that’s why one of us is going to get out and it’s going to be him.” (Andrea, married 3 years, no children)
“For us being dual military, I don’t know that we’re going to be able to make it work as careers for both of us, and he’s got 12 years in at this point. But, with how many times we’ve been PCS’ed1 apart we haven’t started a family at this point because we haven’t been in one place long enough to be able to do it.” (Katherine, married 3.5 years, no children)
As illustrated, many aspects of both work and home life are affected by the unpredictable nature of military jobs. Maintaining two careers is a large commitment. Individuals realize that the time commitments of having a family are often incompatible with the demands faced by work-linked couples. This affects how couples make long-term decisions regarding family and career planning. With both spouses being in the military, respondents reported that it is difficult to accomplish family tasks, and to plan for the future of the family.
Managing Work and Family Schedules
“You just have to have a routine. You ain’t gonna be able to do everything you want, throughout the day. There’s not enough hours in the day so, you just gotta prioritize of what needs, what can get done. It’s like, me and my wife get home, we fix a meal that doesn’t take more than 15-20 minutes to fix and you know on the weekends that’s when we like to do our barbeques and stuff like that. And we still spend time, ya know, with the kids.” (Owen, married 11 years, two children)
“You’re up at 4, out the door, you drop your kid off to daycare about 5:30, she’s there ‘til 5, 5:30 and then you go home and you have to have that schedule going and then when you throw in sports and school and everything else into there, it makes for long days but it can be done. It may not be fun but once you get used to it, it’s a routine.” (Anthony, married 2 years, one child)
“There is scheduling and planning, but it’s seldom that it goes as scheduled or as according to plan. Like, you can be called in at two in the morning for recall formation for something one person did in the company or something like that.” (Faye, married 1 year, one child)
“It takes a lot of…backwards planning really. You gotta look at a calendar and say…‘this [is] what we got goin’ on.’ But stuff changes all the time so…we’re always canceling something or have to reschedule something. It could be something that as far as…an activity at the school or a dental appointment or a medical appointment.” (Owen, married 11 years, two children)
“It does put a little bit of stress on the family…you know she may want to take leave at this period but I know I can’t because of the job. So we try to…be that family and take the vacations or just the time off together whatever but sometimes you can’t do it. I think the military affects more towards the family life than…your life affects the military.” (Howard, married 2 years, one child)
Division of Labor
“A lot of times you have like really long days, we both work till 1700, and like right now we’re doin’ inventories and we’re both outside and workin’ hard doin’ that stuff and we both get home it’s like, none of us wanna cook, none of us wanna do this.” (Cassie, married 1 year, no children)
“No one wants to do anything when they get home, after working in the sun all day. That brings up some arguments. Who’s gonna clean, who’s going to cook.” (Cherise, married 2 years, one child)
“[When] we get home, I’m tired from the day and I know she sore from the day, but one of us has to step up and watch up our daughter. So, I’ll take one day, she’ll take the next day and we’ll switch back and forth…I said taking it day by day.” (Henry, married 2 years, one child)
The issues brought to light above illustrate the complex nature of being in a work-linked marriage. Many of the stressors experienced by these individuals revolve around demanding work schedules that contribute to an inability to be fully present in the family domain. As individuals in work-linked marriages attempt to navigate these complex situations, conflicts can arise related to the inability to successfully transition between roles to fulfill obligations both at home and at work.
The next section focuses on the second major theme that emerged in the focus groups. Specifically, we describe participants’ experiences related to boundary maintenance. Individuals have diverse needs and preferences with regard to role boundaries. The experiences of these individuals offer a potent example of the stress related to managing the boundary between work and family in a dual-earner and work-linked couple.
Boundary Separation and Integration
Respondents described challenges related to maintaining work-family boundaries and in transitioning between work and home, and benefits related to shared work experiences. Many of the issues described by participants stemmed from preferring different work-family boundaries on the spectrum between complete role integration and role separation. Some participants noted frustration at having to discuss work at home, while others mentioned wanting more integration. Boundary separation and integration matters were discussed in all focus groups (19/19; 100% FG). This section is organized into two main themes, work-family boundary challenges and shared experiences, with related supporting subthemes. Each main theme provides insight concerning different ways in which work demands spillover into home life and how family-related factors spillover to work performance.
Work-family Boundary Challenges
Exemplary quotes from these discussions demonstrate that work-linked individuals have a difficult time maintaining clean boundaries between the two domains, and the effects of this can be detrimental to both domains.
“In a work environment you’re supposed to be professional. No matter what, you don’t bring home to work, and you don’t bring work to home. But it was kinda impossible in Afghanistan. There was really no difference between work and home…so they both kinda got mixed in together.” (Curt, married 1 year, one child)
“It’s just a constant, additional level of stress. And, any time you have a stress that is constant and never goes away, and it’s not ever going to go away as long as both of us are in the military, it does impact my job performance because, you know…I will stop doing work that I probably should stay to get done because I wanna go home and spend a little bit of time with my husband and my kids. …but at the same time, it also impacts me when I get home because, the stress of being at work, and the stress of the uncertainty of my husband being at work… carries over. It’s not, you can’t just leave work at work and home at home because the two are so intertwined.” (Donna, unknown length of marriage, five children)
“Some people can take their jobs to their home and…that’s what my husband does most of the time and we fight every single day while we’re going home because of something that happened…And I try to explain to him like you’re at work you’re at work you’re at the house leave the work at work.” (Janice, married 5 years, one child)
“My wife likes to do it too [talk about work] but for some reason when I get home from work I don’t wanna hear anything about work. So she’s sitting there telling me about it and I’m just sitting there just getting fired up…By the time I take this uniform off I just wanna eat, sit down enjoy what little time I do have until four o’ clock in the morning comes around again.” (Otis, unknown length of marriage, one child)
The tenets of the crossover framework assist in understanding these experiences. That is, one spouse’s behavior or attitude crosses over to their partner’s behavior or attitude. So, while work-linked individuals are experiencing the work-nonwork spillover of bringing work experiences to the home domain, crossover of experiences and emotions from one spouse to the other is also occurring.
Worry over Family
“I have to worry about myself while I’m over there…and now that I’m back I have to worry about him being over there. I don’t get time off from worrying…as opposed to a civilian. If it was just me and not him, I wouldn’t have to have that extra stress right now.” (Cassie, married 1 year, no children)
This quote suggests that work-linked individuals in the military may experience additional stress due to the demands of the military on both spouses. This worry potentially leads to negative outcomes at home and work. Indeed, worrying is directly related to anxiety depressive disorders, and can lead to considerable health care costs and lost worker productivity (Baxter et al. 2013; Hoffman et al. 2008).
Perceptions of Others
“They still may be your spouse but you still want to set the example that you don’t get shown favoritism just because you might work with them and stuff like that because you’re married, you still show the proper courtesies and not be inappropriate.” (Becky, married 1 year, no children)
The confusion that arises as a result of working in the same career as a spouse may lead to stress from not knowing how to handle work situations as spouses, or home situations as coworkers.
Respondents discussed two types of benefits, mutual understanding and friendly competition, arising from both spouses having similar work roles. Together, these two themes illustrate some of the benefits of being in a work-linked marriage. Shared experiences were discussed in almost all focus groups (18/19; 95% FG).
Discussion of the benefit of a shared understanding between spouses regarding the demands and other characteristics of their jobs was mentioned in all of the focus groups that had conversations about shared experiences (18/18; 100%). For these respondents, having a spouse with a similar career who was working for the same organization, allowed for a better understanding of job pressures and challenges, and the impact that job-related demands had on the family domain. Specifically, respondents in several of these focus groups (6/18; 33% FG) felt that they could get help from their spouses on work-related issues due to having a spouse with similar work experiences.
“I think in some ways it’s nice, cause you got levels to relate on like, like we’re both NCO’s, [non-commissioned officer] so we can go home and talk about the same thing even though we don’t have the same lives. So if I need help on something we don’t have completely different jobs so I can ask him like hey, this soldier’s doin this, what could I do? So, it’s useful sometimes.” (Cassie, married 1 year, no children)
“And having a spouse who actually knows the ins and outs of the military so I mean that’s a big plus. I really you really don’t have to go home and explain why you have to do this or why you have to be gone a week…” (Adam, unknown length of marriage, three children)
Some individuals indicated that they competed with their spouses and pushed one another to work harder and perform better. This competition facilitates positive work-nonwork crossover and spillover effects. These effects may then result in increased work performance. This benefit of being work-linked was mentioned in a few of these focus groups (3/18; 17% FG).
“As far as job performance…it just pushes me harder. I don’t want her to out rank me. Therefore it strives me to work harder and knowing I’ve worked beside her, and know how hard she works, it just makes me have to work twice as hard as her.” (Nate, married 2 years, three children)
The goal of the current study was to help fill the gap in work-family literature by providing a comprehensive examination of work-linked couples in unique work–family situations (Ferguson et al. 2016), and an understanding of both the challenges and benefits associated with being in a work-linked relationship. We used Halbesleben et al.’s (2010) conceptualization of work-linked relationships along with boundary theory (Ashforth et al. 2000) in formulating our conceptualization of work and family issues specific to work-linked couples. The dual-military model (Huffman and Payne 2006) was used to inform our study with regard to the specific type of work-linked couples under examination - dual-military couples. Based on the current study’s findings, we revised and extended the model, and introduced a new comprehensive work-linked couples model that applies to many different settings.
Work-linked couples also share unique workplace experiences. In the focus groups, two main themes emerged related to the idea of shared experiences: mutual understanding and friendly competition. The idea that each member of the couple understood their spouse’s job, and the expectations of their spouse’s job, was perceived as a considerable advantage. Similarly, many individuals in work-linked marriages stressed that they believed that having a spouse in the same organization (and in some cases the same job), made them a better employee. They used their similar roles as platforms for “friendly competition” and perceived they were better at their job due to this spousal rivalry.
Finally, the idea of a work-linked schedule was a unique factor for individuals in work-linked couples. Interestingly, this factor, “work-linked schedules,” can be seen as both a challenge and a benefit. Work-linked schedules describes the similar work-schedules that can be shared when two people share the same job, or work for the same organization. This can be seen as a challenge because in some cases it provides the marital unit less flexibility to deal with family responsibilities such as children. Yet, on the other hand, it can be an advantage because organizationally-determined time off (holidays and after work hours) are the same, allowing the couple to more easily plan family events.
Crossover between spouses and spillover between domains provide an explanatory contribution for these three factors (perceptions of others, shared experiences, and work-linked schedules), but maybe not as they are traditionally defined. In the case of crossover, we argue that a “a dyadic, inter-individual transmission” occurs, but not of stress but of cognitions and attitudes. Similarly, shared experiences from work will spill over to the home domain and affect both spouses’ experiences at home. Due to the fact that work-linked couples have more shared boundaries, most all of their experiences will include some type of crossover or spillover. Referring back to Fig. 2, there is a circular path: spouse A at work – crossover - spouse B at work – spillover – spouse B at home – crossover – Spouse A at home – spillover – Spouse A at work - etc. This pattern is affected by factors such as the individual’s experiences (e.g., role overload, family support) and the permeability of the boundaries.
It should also be noted that work-linked individuals seemed to experience high levels of stressors related to work and family issues, especially in transitioning between the two domains. While some participants noted some benefits of being in a work-linked marriage, like mutual understanding and healthy competition, many participants mentioned having trouble with managing schedules, fulfilling family obligations, and separating or integrating the work and home domains successfully. Participants mentioned the strategies they use in an attempt to stay organized such as weekly planning and keeping a schedule of family activities. However, they noted that the unpredictability of their work schedules makes it difficult to stay on top of these schedules. Unpredictable work schedules may be specific to particular organizations, but the issue of lack of flexibility in scheduling family responsibilities due to having similar work hours between spouses is only augmented in these situations. While specific factors like geography and long work hours can affect how individuals integrate and segment their different roles, individual preferences seem to vary about how much to segment versus integrate the two roles. Some participants noted the desire to discuss work matters at home, while others mentioned their frustration at their spouse bringing such work matters home.
Work-linked individuals in the military offer a potent example of experiences of work-linked couples in general. The current study aligns with and extends previous work on work-linked couples. Our study indicates that mutual understanding of work matters between spouses can be beneficial. Participants in this study noted the healthy competition, experience sharing, and understanding and patience that come from working for the same organization. Work-linked couples can potentially learn to maximize these benefits of sharing occupations.
Work-linked couples would benefit from discussing their preferences with regard to how integrated or segmented they desire their work and home roles to be. In some cases, it may be more beneficial to the family unit and to each spouse to integrate the roles further by discussing work matters at home. While other situations may dictate that the individuals clearly segment the roles and have thicker boundaries between work and home. While some work experiences are not left to preference (e.g., long hours; Ashforth et al. 2000), spouses may be able to ease tensions that arise from conflicting preferences.
This study informs the work-linked couple and boundary literatures on family-to-work conflict that is specific to work-linked couples who share a workplace (rather than just an occupation). That is, there are potential conflicts that arise when work-linked couples do not properly manage the boundary between their home matters and work. Participants in this study discussed tensions that can arise at work when spouses attempt to bring home matters to work. Participants noted that this can lead to others’ perceptions of differential treatment between spouses at work. It may be the case that work-linked couples need to discuss home matters at work occasionally. Work-linked couples need a strategy for navigating the boundary between home and work roles while physically at work together. While positive nonwork-work spillover has been examined in previous research (Ashforth et al. 2000; Greenhaus and Powell 2006), no known studies have examined the negative nonwork-work spillover than can occur in work-linked couples.
The work-family literature provides insight into strategies that can be used to decrease the negative outcomes associated with work-family conflict. For example, Moreno-Jiménez et al. (2009) found that psychological detachment from work was an effective tool to mitigate the negative effects of work-family conflict on wellbeing. Similarly, Rantanen et al. (2011) found that avoidant coping was effective in increasing family satisfaction of those in high work-family environments. This idea of using a detachment or avoidance approach could be especially useful for work-linked couples since it would provide distance between their dual-shared life, letting them focus on just one of their life domains (home). The couple would need to develop strategies that would create a buffer between these two domains. For example, they could create a set of rules such as “no work talk after six,” or not checking work emails on Sundays. Similarly, they could designate six to seven p.m. (or the specific time that they get home from work) as a transition time, a time in which they cognitively switch gears from work to family.
The current study also provides organizations with insight on the experiences of work-linked couples. We found that work-linked couples report having a shared understanding of their spouses’ jobs and workplace experiences. Janning (2006) found that work-linked couples report a closeness resulting from these shared experiences, which is beneficial to their relationships. In addition, resources that a work-linked spouse can provide will likely be enhanced through their shared understanding of the job (Halbesleben et al. 2014). As a result, work performance is more likely to be enhanced and work-related stress reduced. Furthermore, the support that one’s spouse can provide due to this shared understanding of work-related challenges may result in heightened job satisfaction (Ferguson et al. 2016).
Additionally, our study found that work-linked couples report that they are motivated to work harder due to friendly competition between the spouses. Research has demonstrated that individual competitiveness is related to high sales performance (Robie et al. 2005) and that competitive work environments can be engaging for employees (Jones et al. 2017). Thus, competition between spouses at work can be beneficial for organizations.
Given the potential positive outcomes associated with enhanced workplace experiences and friendly competition, organizations may wish to develop strategies and implement practices to hire and retain work-linked couples. For example, managers may consider implementing competitions within the workplace to facilitate the friendly rivalry that appears to motivate some work-linked couples. In addition, organizations may consider allowing couples to be partners on projects in order to capitalize on the shared understandings that may result in even greater performance when they are paired together. Finally, whereby our results suggested that work-linked couples may find it challenging to manage their home lives when both members of the couple experience work stress simultaneously, organizations may consider enacting special initiatives during exceptionally stressful time periods. For example, during tax season, an accounting firm may consider offering after-work childcare at the office in order to help families manage their non-work obligations. These policies may be beneficial to other employees (e.g., single parents, dual-career employees with spouses who work separate shifts), but may be particularly appealing to work-linked couples.
Limitations and Future Research
One potential limitation of this research is that it employs data from only one occupation - the military. While this could limit generalizability to other occupations, we believe that the results nevertheless apply to work-linked couples in many different occupations. In particular, the theoretical framework on which this study was executed was based on both civilian and military perspectives. The basis of the military model was rooted in general frameworks (e.g., crossover, spillover) that have been used to explain work-life experiences in many settings. While this study examined some military-specific experiences (e.g., deployment) and resources (e.g., military family-friendly policies), the general discussion and relationships we developed in the work-linked couples model include other examples of experiences likely to be encountered in non-military occupations. Whereas the experiences of work-linked couples in many different occupations will align with and be guided by the model, this may be truer for specific occupations that have more in common with the military (e.g., careers in law enforcement; firefighters and emergency medical technicians). Specifically, occupations that share more experiences with the military are more likely to align with the model developed here.
As can be seen in the final model, most of the variables are common to most occupations. We should note that in two of the major themes, long term family planning and worry over family, the respondents provided examples that were mostly military specific (e.g., deployment). Although these experiences may not apply to their work-linked civilian counterpart, the themes likely generalize to experiences of non-military individuals. For example, couples who work in non-military fields may still experience extended separations due to business trips and other work-related travel, especially if both partners must travel. Additionally, many other occupations experience unpredictability on a day-to-day and long-term basis. For example, business owners, like those in the military, may be hesitant to plan for children due to difficulty making long-term plans (Jennings and Jennings 2015).
Another potential limitation is that the majority of individuals participating in the focus groups had been married for less than two years. This is important because their concerns may be different than the concerns of individuals who have longer tenure (career tracks, promotions) and/or longer marriages. However, the sample was quite diverse in other ways (gender: 51.6% female; race: non-White 64.9%). Future studies should examine a larger career span and length of marriage of work-linked individuals to assess both early and late career and family issues.
This study shows that many stressors work-linked couples face, especially related to the integration of work and home roles, may be related to individual preferences and may vary widely. This finding is consistent with previous research (Kossek et al. 2006; Kreiner 2006). The current study was not designed to probe this area of inquiry. Learning more about when and why these preference variations exist could assist work-linked couples in developing strategies to deal with work and family issues appropriately for their family. We suggest that researchers explore the specific situations in which couples prefer to bring work matters home and when they do not. If couples could learn to navigate their role integration preferences, it may lead to reduced stressors both at home and work.
Researchers are just beginning to examine the workplace experiences of work-linked couples. Halbesleben et al. introduced the concept “work-linked” in 2010, and since this time the research on this topic has been slowly growing. Using extant work-family theories, the current study provides the first comprehensive model that is unique to work-linked couples, and shows the benefits and challenges associated with being in a work-link relationship. The model suggests that there are three factors (perceptions of others, shared experiences, work-linked schedules) that are unique to individuals in work-linked relationships compared to the more studied dual-career couples. Understanding these unique factors, along with the factors shared with individuals in dual-career relationships, provides a better snapshot of this population. Researchers, organizational decision makers, and individuals in work-linked relationships can benefit from the current study as they study, develop, and implement policies and strategies that help work-linked couples navigate their personal, family, and work needs.
PCS refers to Permanent Change of Station a military term which describes moving due to a new job, and relocating to a new duty station.
Compliance with Ethical Standards
Conflict of Interest
On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.
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