Hofstra Horizons Research

Making the Work-Family Interface Work (and Assessing When and Why It Doesn’t)

from the Spring 2016 Issue of Hofstra Horizons
Maura J. Mills, PhD
Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Hofstra University

Increasingly as of late, the United States is coming to recognize the importance of the work-family interface, and employees’ abilities to effectively navigate both of these central life responsibilities. Recently we have seen more media attention to this issue, and more private companies willing to “take the leap” and offer family-friendly benefits such as paid leaves. In the United States, we have a long way to go in terms of giving our working parents the support they need; however, while we are not “there” yet, we are climbing the ladder. In a country that holds the unenviable reputation as the only industrialized nation that does not offer paid maternity leaves, the only way to go is up. The good news is that we are moving in that direction. The bad news is that it is happening all too slowly.

Beneficiaries (Me? You? Who?)

Work-family research has been one of my passions since long before I had a child of my own. However, while I always believed in the importance of this work, I found an even deeper passion for it after my son’s arrival in 2014. That said, work-family considerations affect everyone: By virtue of the fact that this is a larger societal issue with widespread and long-term implications, we are all beneficiaries (or victims) of our society’s work-family value system and subsequent actions and policies (or lack thereof). For some (e.g., new parents), the relevance of the issue is more obvious, while for others (e.g., singles, individuals without children, individuals with grown children), the relevance may seem more distal. Regardless, it is there.

The consideration of single employees without children is particularly interesting in light of the fact that this is arguably the subpopulation for whom the implications of work-family policies are least obvious (and, it has been charged, perhaps in the short-term these employees are those most likely to bear the burden of an increased workload when a co-worker is using family-related leave). In light of this, colleagues and I1 recently evaluated the impact of having a supervisor who evidences family-supportive behaviors (e.g., by allowing for schedule flexibility, offering interpersonal support, serving as a role model, etc.), and assessed whether (and if so, how) that impact may differ for “parent-employees” as compared to employees without dependent care responsibilities. We found that family-supportive supervisors positively affected subordinates’ feelings of self-efficacy as well as their emotional commitment to their company. In turn, this self-efficacy and commitment informed enhanced job performance, which is of prime importance to employers. Perhaps most interestingly, these findings remained true regardless of whether employees had children. This is encouraging, indicating that family-supportive supervisors play a crucial role in enhancing not only the employee experience, but also the extent to which those employees are positively contributing to their company. Companies can take this to mean that when they allow their managers the flexibility to help employees balance their work and family needs, they are not necessarily setting a precedent of preference for parent-employees, but rather are facilitating a resource that is beneficial to all employees, regardless of familial status.

I am continuing this focus in my current research, and my graduate students and I2 are further exploring the impact of companies’ work-family policies on their single and childless employees. Our research is still ongoing, although initial results stand in line with my prior findings, indicating that having a supervisor who evidences family-supportive behaviors is just as predictive of job satisfaction and affective organizational commitment for singles as it is for parents. Further, such family-supportive supervisor behaviors do not seem to predict turnover intentions or perceived exclusion for single employees – a heartening finding in favor of family-supportive policymaking and support across the board. Notably, it is likely that this finding is particularly evident when such family-supportive policies are not restricted to childcare responsibilities (e.g., when they are equally applied to spousal care, eldercare, etc.), as doing so recognizes the importance of non-work responsibilities in all employees’ lives, regardless of their parental status.

Lopsided by Gender

The work-family research domain (and to a slower extent, its translation into practice) has become more widespread lately and more recognized as a need in the field. This is largely thanks to various controversial examples highlighted by the popular press, not the least of which have been the work-family positions taken by Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, who put an end to flexible work schedules in 2013 and more recently vowed to curtail her own maternity leave after the birth of her twins. These examples struck a chord with many working parents, and while Mayer’s policies are not as atypical as the media made them out to be, a large part of the reason they received such backlash is because of Mayer’s gender (the implication being that, as a woman, she should “know better”). With examples such as this, along with the steady shifting of societal gender norms, research on gender in the workplace has increased in recent years alongside the increase in work-family research. Until recently, however, research had not sufficiently explored the extent to which such work-family experiences may differ by employee gender. As such, my recent book, Gender and the Work-Family Experience: An Intersection of Two Domains,3 reviewed this important intersection of work-family/gender, critically evaluating it in light of relevant considerations that are oftentimes overlooked, and making recommendations for future research so that a more accurate picture can come to light, thereby informing more up-to-date corporate and governmental policies.

You can probably imagine that, as a working mother, I believe in maternity work-family policies, regardless of my research stream. However, as someone holding tight to an egalitarian value system, I also believe in paternity work-family policies, the importance of which became even more evident to me after my son’s birth. From a personal perspective, I watched my husband struggle with an inflexible yet unpredictable work schedule, and yearn for paternity policies that could have allowed for him to be a more constant presence in our family’s day-to-day routines, particularly throughout our son’s earliest months. This struggle (part of which is gender-based [lack of paternity policies] and part of which is not [variable shiftwork]) is contextualized within an increasingly egalitarian society in which families are expecting more of men on the home front, but organizations are largely thwarting that by limiting the extent of work-family policies offered to male employees. On a broad level, the net result of gendered policies is that even though women still tend to do the majority of childcare and housework (even in dual-earner and egalitarian households), men are feeling comparable amounts of work-family conflict because corporate policies as well as societal stereotypes do not often support them in undertaking these home roles.4

To some extent, differential policies are understandable, given the physical complications presented by pregnancy and childbirth. However, organizational policies all too often use gender as a proxy for childbirth in framing their policies (presuming any such policies exist). According to the (legitimate) childbirth justification, any such extended leave options should be specified to link to the physical needs of childbirth/postpartum, as opposed to blanketed to women across the board simply by virtue of their gender: It is not a gender issue, per se – it is a childbirth issue. While the two often align, increasingly common family formations such as adoption, surrogacy, and the like assure us that they sometimes differ.

That said, however, it is also necessary to consider the fact that husbands (and partners more generally) often serve as a new mother’s only source of support after childbirth. This is especially true considering that, more so than ever before, families are widely geographically dispersed, making family support beyond one’s partner minimal to nonexistent for many women post-birth. Particularly in the (not infrequent) cases of post-birth complications or surgery, or when there is an older child in need of care, such support is crucial. For instance, one-third of all births in the United States are via caesarean section, after which women are severely restricted in terms of various physical activities such as driving, traversing stairs, and lifting anything heavier than 7-10 pounds. Especially if the family has one or more prior children still in need of care (a not unlikely circumstance, considering common sibling spacing of 2-3 years), a lack of paternity/partner policies leaves a mother recovering from major abdominal surgery (and other post-birth physical issues) alone to care for herself, a toddler (potentially), and an infant all without any support and under severe physical restrictions. It is therefore critical that paternity/partner leaves are not overlooked. Indeed, they are crucial to the overall well-being of the family, and are often the only way to ensure necessary postnatal support for both mother and child.

Beyond Gender: Multiple Identities

A slow outgrowth of the work-family/gender research has been the recognition that additional facets of individuals’ identities are also likely to affect this relationship in various ways. Such research is still in its relative infancy; however, my book brought it to the forefront with specific theoretically driven and empirically supported arguments as to how and why further demographic identities such as socioeconomic status, race, LGBT status, and age/generation may change the nature of the work-family/gender intersection. In this vein, it highlights the risk of the “double jeopardy effect,” wherein an individual experiences more negative outcomes by virtue of identifying with multiple marginalized demographic groups. For instance, the scant research that exists at this three-way convergence has found relationships such as low-income single mothers lacking sufficient childcare support, and Hispanic individuals reporting more strain-based work-family interference than Caucasians. From a generation perspective, although adolescent women espouse more egalitarian views than do adolescent men, when asked to forward-think to their ultimate familial and work goals, those women reported plans to work part-time (or not at all) and take on the majority of the home role, thereby bringing into question the ultimate efficacy of the increasingly espoused egalitarian views of this younger generation.

Moreover, so much of what we know about the work-family/gender intersection is grounded in research from Western, primarily Caucasian, middle-class, professional employees. While this research provides a good starting point, more representative research is desperately warranted. This includes research on the above-mentioned gender-associated demographics, including socioeconomic status (the “feminization of poverty” delineates how women are more likely to fall into poverty than are men) and gendered jobs (e.g., military and STEM fields, which often by virtue of their inherent gender alignment subconsciously reinforce gendered stereotypes, limiting women’s options in managing the work-family domain in a way that is not as limiting for males’ options).

Assessing and Informing Action and Policy

Work-family supportive policies have been integrated into organizations’ formal benefits offerings increasingly over the past two to three decades. From the United States’ Family and Medical Leave Act (1993) to the more extensive work-family benefits found in other countries (including paid maternity and paternity leaves of up to a year, as well as federally funded childcare options), progress continues to be made. This is even more accurate when we consider discretionary organizational policies such as paid leave, flexible work arrangements, and on-site childcare centers. The benefits of such policies are wide-ranging, including longer maternity leaves being associated with lower infant mortality (up to a plateau of 40 weeks paid leave, after which benefits drop off or even reverse). Similar health benefits may also be derived from paternity leaves, although perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent, as a result of maternity leaves in particular facilitating mother-specific offerings such as likelihood of breastfeeding success. Notably, breastfeeding has varied health benefits for both baby (e.g., antibodies to stave off illnesses, reduced risk of asthma and allergies) and mother (e.g., decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancer), with the World Health Organization recommending breastfeeding until at least two years of age to reap the full extent of its benefits (a steep goal to meet while working full-time). On a broader level, colleagues and I5 have found various other benefits of family-supportive supervisors and family-friendly organizational policies, including increased employee well-being and improved employee engagement in their job tasks – benefits that are of clear import at the company level.

With this in mind, of foremost necessity moving forward are increased federally mandated paid leave options in developed countries such as the United States that are capable of supporting such efforts but heretofore have chosen not to do so. Most of the family-supportive policies recently seen in the United States have been at the hands of private companies rather than more widely applicable governmental initiatives. An exception to this, however, is the proposed Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, currently on the table in the Senate, which would provide up to 12 weeks of paid family leave for workers upon the birth or adoption of a child, as well as for the illness of an immediate family member needing the employee’s care. In this vein, as we move throughout the development and implementation of new policies, it is crucial to ensure that such policies are not only equally applicable to both men and women in letter, but are also equally as available to both in light of the organizational and societal cultures within which those policies are housed. Indeed, it is these environmental contexts that are often even greater determinants of whether employees will feel able to utilize the policies than are the policies themselves.

Let’s End on a Positive Note

It tends to be easiest for people to most readily associate with the idea that work has a tendency to negatively interfere with one’s family life – whether from a time-based perspective (e.g., more time at work means less time with family) or from a strain-based perspective (e.g., being stressed from work negatively affects peoples’ moods at home). While that is indeed one side of the picture (and the side that is often focused on, considering that it is where action is most needed in order to rectify the situation), another side is more heartening. That is, particularly from a cognitive and emotional perspective, employees’ experiences in the workplace can positively affect their home life, as well. For instance, my past research6 has indicated that being engaged in one’s work (and, less surprisingly, experiencing positive affectivity at work) can positively influence employees’ home and family lives.

My collaborators and I also found that it is possible to maximize the extent to which this is the case by talking about positive work experiences and sharing them with family. Doing so encourages employees to savor such positive events and feelings, and to some extent such affect can also rub off on family members when they are invited to share in those positive emotions. This is good news for all of us, evidencing the positive ways in which work can influence home lives and family interactions, and recommending steps that we can take in order to maximize the extent to which this is likely to be true in our own homes, too.

I challenge you to go home tonight and share a positive work experience with your family. Do it today, do it tomorrow, and do it the day after that. The more it becomes a habit, the more we increase the likelihood that our work experiences will positively influence the quality of our home lives. Enjoy!

This “reader challenge” was inspired by the challenge presented in Jeff Froh’s Hofstra Horizons article (spring 2015 issue). If you missed Jeff’s article, I encourage you to read it, and I challenge you to accept both challenges! [http://news.hofstra.edu/2015/05/04/making-grateful-kids-good-manners/]


1 Mills, M. J., Matthews, R. A., Henning, J. B., & Woo, V. A. (2014). Family-supportive organizations and supervisors: What difference do they make, and for whom? International Journal of Human Resource Management, 25, 1763-1785.

2 Rosiello, R. M., Tortez, L., & Mills, M. J. (in progress). Equal opportunity support: Examining the work-family experience for single, childless employees. Paper to be presented at the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology Conference. Anaheim, California, April 2016.

3 Mills, M. J. (Ed.) (2015). Gender and the work-family experience: An intersection of two domains. New York, NY: Springer Publishing.

4 Mills, M. J., & Grotto, A. R. (under review). Who can have it all and how? An empirical examination of gender and work-life experiences at the upper echelon. Gender in Management:An International Journal.

5 Matthews, R. A., Mills, M. J., Trout, R., & English, L. (2014). Family-supportive supervisor behaviors, employee engagement, and subjective well-being: A contextually-dependent mediated process. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 19, 168-181.

6 Culbertson, S. S., Mills, M. J., & Fullagar, C. J. (2012). Work engagement and work-family facilitation: Making homes happier through positive affective spillover. Human Relations, 65, 1155-1177.

… historical materialism focuses on economic and social relations of production and how these factors influence the day-to-day lives and beliefs of individuals.

Maura Mills


Maura Mills is an assistant professor of industrial/organizational psychology at Hofstra University. She has taught at all degree levels, although her current primary teaching responsibilities fall within Hofstra’s MA and PhD programs in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Applied Organizational Psychology, respectively, and she currently serves as director of internships for the former. Dr. Mills has also taught for the undergraduate and MBA programs within Hofstra’s Frank G. Zarb School of Business. She earned a dual BA in psychology and English (corporate communications) from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, and an MS and PhD in industrial/organizational psychology from Kansas State University. Dr. Mills’ research interests focus on positive organizational behavior, including the effective intersection of the work and non-work spheres, predicting positive employee and organizationally relevant outcomes of the employee experience, and the sound measurement of constructs within each of these domains. Her research has been published in journals such as Human Relations, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology and Gender in Management. She has also written multiple book chapters, in addition to recently having served as editor for the book Gender and the Work-Family Experience: An Intersection of Two Domains (Springer Publishing). She can be reached at Maura.Mills@hofstra.edu or via her website at http://people.hofstra.edu/Maura_Mills/.

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