Work-Family Balance

Balancing the demands and domains of work and family life presents major challenges for individuals, couples, and families. Career counselors and all counseling professionals must be able to comprehend and assist people to deal with issues of work-family balance. This article considers work-family balance from the perspectives of history and career intervention.

History of Work-Family Balance

The relationship between the domains of work and family has undergone many shifts in the United States. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, families tended to work together, usually where they lived (farms, small businesses), in sustainable ways. Although men’s and women’s roles within those families differed (men engaged in manual labor and trade; women were in charge of sustenance, family needs, and domestic tasks), all of the duties were seen as of equal necessity and importance. Further, the education and care of children was equally divided, as children accompanied their same-sex parent in the performance of work. At this point in history, childhood was short: children became “little adults” as soon as they were able.

The Industrial Revolution and the accompanying geographic shift of work from home to cities resulted in a separation of those two domains. Sustainability was now segregated into two separate spheres and gender-specific roles. Shortly thereafter the ideology of separate spheres emerged: men’s sphere was public and regulated, while the domain of women remained private and unregulated. Men governed the family, social and political institutions, and the economy, while women managed the home, emotions, culture, morality, and children. This doctrine of separate spheres remained dominant until quite recently. Further, ideas about the ideal mother (careworker), ideal father (breadwinner), and the ideal worker (an employee primarily dedicated to his paid job) proliferated.

During and after World War I, women began to express interest in personal satisfaction, and ambition, but their participation in the labor force did not increase until the Great Depression and World War II. Nevertheless, the right of the married woman to work was debated vociferously and was a tenet of early feminism. Ultimately, because of the draft and the war, women were needed to work in factories and businesses. The image of Rosie the Riveter was a patriotically inspiring image, new dignity was conferred on women’s wage work, and women liked going to work. Their wage work acquired unprecedented public prominence and contributed significantly to the economy. After World War II, men reclaimed their manufacturing jobs, and women’s labor participation reached its lowest level of the century. Women were strongly encouraged to return home, and the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the Family Wage Act of 1939 plus the enticement of home ownership and the new domestic labor-saving devices facilitated that choice. Men’s earning power grew, and women’s work was discouraged. Women’s experience at work during the war, however, had altered women’s attitudes about work considerably, and even though the economic upturn during the 1950s resulted in the ability of many men to support their families on one income, women were attracted to the labor market. During the last quarter of the 20th century, a number of forces coalesced to change women’s labor force participation: (1) increasing access to higher education for women; (2) the Women’s Movement, which successfully advocated for equal opportunity for women in the workplace; (3) the introduction of birth control; (4) the increase in the age of marriage; (5) the decrease in the fertility rate; (6) the increasing divorce rate; (7) the steady decline in the earning power of men’s wages; and (8) an increase in Americans’ material expectations. By the 1960s, the traditional breadwinner-homemaker lifestyle began to give way to the current normative pattern: the dual-earner couple, in which both members work for pay. Today, more than half of all married couples both work, as do 66.5% (as of 2005) of all parents, and 57% of couples with children under the age of 6. Further, the average amount of time that couples spend at work has increased dramatically (by about 10 hours a week) in the last 20 years.

This new dual-earner arrangement has created both new problems and new opportunities for families, and for the workplace. Working couples are vulnerable to role conflict, work-family spillover, and the problem of “three jobs, two people.” Further, the United States lags behind most other developed countries in the provision of state-supported child care and paid leave.

At the same time, working couples often have slightly more disposable income, and both generations X and Y are more egalitarian in their attitudes toward child rearing and child care, challenging the idea of the ideal worker. This shift in attitudes is beginning to pose a problem for some industries, such as law and finance. Turnover among midcareer professionals was growing; this is costly for firms, who estimate that the replacement costs of employees is more than 30% of individuals’ salary. This bottom-line impact is of concern to companies, and since around 1980, companies with many employees have both studied work-family issues and implemented policies to address them. And the multidisciplinary study of work-family is increasing dramatically. Since 1977, the year that Rosabeth Moss Kanter published her monograph on work and family, scholarly work has burgeoned. More than 3,500 articles were published in 2000, but few of them have been cited by clinicians in their work.

Work-Family Balance Implications for Counseling

Ideological Expectations

The ideological model of intensive mothering among White families began to emerge in the 1930s and pervaded through the 1970s. This model was informed by the changing beliefs about child rearing, the emergence of psychological (Freud, Erikson) and cognitive (Jean Piaget) developmental models, and the increase in availability of mothering “experts” such as Benjamin Spock. Although more women are working, and more women are working full-time, full-year, this set of beliefs has not changed much, and can result in considerable conflict and guilt for both men and women.

Role Conflict

Research suggests that despite the increase in egalitarian beliefs among men and women in marriage, traditional gender roles, especially reflected in the division of labor at home, remain powerfully ingrained. The psychological tension embedded in the conflict between work and family roles has been described as occurring bidirectionally: either from work to family or family to work. From a research perspective, they are distinct reciprocal constructs with independent antecedents and outcomes. Further, there is evidence to suggest that the relationship between work-family conflict and job satisfaction is decidedly negative. These conflicts can be time-based (e.g., needing to work late), strain-based (anxiety about a child’s illness might interfere with the ability to concentrate at work), or behavior-based (conflict stemming from incompatible behaviors demanded by competing roles, e.g., being appropriately aggressive and unemotional in a specific work role such as litigator is probably not appropriate at home). Further, despite increasing egalitarianism, the burden of care-work continues to fall mostly on women. Nearly 80% (79.9%) of women report having the main or total responsibility for child care in their households, and this statistic does not include caring for ill or aging relatives. Data suggest that even when men participate in domestic work and child care, they tend to choose what they do and the executive function in the household tends to be located in women. This is not to say that men are not involved at home nor is it suggested that men do not experience work-family conflict. From a practice perspective, both kinds of conflict can have implications for male and female clients. Since identity is often embedded in social role, these kinds of conflicts can be quite disturbing to clients. From a couples’ perspective, work-family conflict is often associated with differing gender-role expectations rather than with the role demands themselves, that is, the degree to which their gender-role expectations differ and the degree to which their individual work and family roles are ego-dystonic. Because role expectations are so deeply embedded, they can be difficult to discuss for both individuals and couples.

The opposite of work-family conflict is work-to-family facilitation, positively associated with job- and life-satisfaction, negatively with stress and family-to-work facilitation, positively associated with marital- and family-satisfaction, and negatively associated with organizational commitment. But working mothers report more work-family conflict and stress and less family-, marital-, and life-satisfaction than working fathers.

Role Overload

Not the same as role conflict, role overload refers to the sheer number of role demands. There is some evidence to suggest that parenting is less effective when role overload occurs in the work domain, but too much work is not in and of itself negative. Rather, schedule fit and control are better predictors of psychological distress.


Multiple role occupancy is, in itself, not necessarily detrimental to individuals. Chait Barnett and Shibley Hyde have suggested that multiple roles are generally beneficial for both men and women, and have positive implications for psychological well-being. This is known as either positive spillover or work-family enrichment.

Work Schedules and Family-Friendly Policies

Until quite recently, work schedules were, for the most part, rigid, resulting in considerable stress for working parents. In the last 20 years, employers in the United States have demanded more and more time on the job. This is especially true for the service sector. Accountants, lawyers, and finance professionals, for example, are expected to be client-friendly 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Despite this 24/7 expectation, many employers have recently seen the bottom-line benefit of flexible schedules: reduced turnover, reduced absenteeism, higher organizational commitment, increased productivity, and higher profits. Further, it has become clear that schedule flexibility (the agile workplace) is the single best family-friendly benefit for individuals as well as for organizations. Other family-friendly policies include family medical leave benefits, paid leave, telecommuting, on-site child care, aging and child care resources, and referral services, to name a few. Family-supportive policies seem to be associated with reduced work-family conflict. The question of utilization, however, remains a problem.

The existence of good policies is not necessarily career neutral. There is some evidence to suggest that in firms that value highly driven employees, taking advantage of such policies can derail individuals. Working Mother Magazine lists the 100 best companies to work for based on both the existence of formal policies and their utilization. For the individual experiencing conflict, however, the absence of good problem-focused coping strategies and proactivity can result in increased stress. It has been found that stressed individuals who use problem-focused coping exhibit less strain than those who do not, but that emotion-focused coping strategies do not lead to positive outcomes. Research also suggests that the use of informal work accommodations to family can be more effective than rigid work-family organizational policies.

Child Care

The satisfactoriness of child care is directly related to income: the higher one’s income, the more likely one is to be able not only to afford child care, but also to have choices about whether that care is delivered at home or in day care. Although for the most part, research has focused on child care for young children, the issue of afterschool care is gaining increased prominence. It is worthwhile to note that the United States is one of the few developed countries whose government does not subsidize some form of child care.

Child Outcomes

The potentially negative effect of maternal employment on children has been studied longer than any other work-family issue. It appears that when mothers engage in paid employment for more than 30 hours per week while their children are younger than 9 months, negative effects on some aspects of cognitive and social development are found. Some of those effects may persist into the school-age years. These data, however, are not universal and are influenced by child gender, ethnicity, child care quality, home environment quality, maternal sensitivity, and socioeconomic status. The equality of the marital relationship appears to be critical to positive child outcomes.

Stress and Illness

Much of the research on stress and illness appears under the rubric of health psychology. Substance abuse has been studied in this domain, as has stress.

The interactions between work and family can provide multiple potential stressors, which in turn can be associated with depression, anxiety, burnout, and role overload. In addition, recent research suggests that parental concern over what children are doing after school is a major source of employee stress. Working mothers lose approximately one night’s worth of sleep a week, due to the combined demands of work and family. Husbands whose wives work 40 or more hours a week experience poorer health than do husbands whose wives work shorter hours. Finally, it is important to mention that working nonstandard hours exacerbates almost all work-family difficulties. These findings tend to be associated with low-wage workers and are not independent of ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

Off- and On-Ramping

The U.S. economy incurs a significant loss of human capital in that many highly educated, middle-class mothers leave the workforce (i.e., opt out) because they cannot get career continuous part-time arrangements. How women manage their careers once they have children has been the subject of much interest, but of less research. Sylvia Hewlett and Carolyn Luce found that 37% of women voluntarily leave their careers at some point and that 43% of women who have children do so. Caring for elderly parents also pulls women out of the labor force. But, the “pulls” of children and health are not the only triggers. The “push” of lack of opportunity or understimulation are also proximate causes. For the most part, these women have every intention of returning to the labor force, but they pay a high cost for time out, both financially (a loss of an average of 18% of their salaries, a loss of 37% if they stay out for 3 years) and in terms of career trajectory. Because prime childbearing years coincide with prime career-building years in almost every occupation, the penalty for using alternative work arrangements or for stepping out even briefly can be steep. As corporate employers begin to recognize this brain drain, however, they are funding experimental reentry programs at law and business schools to try to ameliorate the loss to both individuals and industry.

Clinical Interventions

The interface between work and family is an important topic for counseling. Although much of the research cited here is about White, middle-class, heterosexual two-parent families, there is an increasing body of knowledge about low-wage workers, single parents, lesbian families, and families of color. Further, the research on work and family issues cross-nationally can also inform, especially when one looks at the effects of national policy differences. And, the absence of literature on the relationship between work-family and clinical interventions is notable. Despite the fact that caseloads increasingly include individuals and couples who are struggling with the issue of balancing work and family, little guidance is available for the counselor or therapist. Kelli A. Saginak and M. Alan Saginak recommend giving high priority to helping couples create marital equality and an equitable distribution of labor, while Ada Sinacore-Guinn and colleagues remind counselors to explore family environment when women enter or reenter the labor force, when clients voice job dissatisfaction, and as they engage in family planning. Finally, when engaging in individual or couples counseling when work-family issues are central, there are two foci: the two individuals’ career or job voices and how those voices are associated with the home environment.


  1. Barnett, R. C., & Hyde, J. S. (2001). Women, men, work, and family: An expansionist theory. American Psychologist, 56(10), 781-796.
  2. Christensen, P. M. (1997). Toward a comprehensive work/life strategy. In S. Parasuraman & J. Greenhaus (Eds.), Integrating work and family: Challenges and choices for a changing world (pp. 25-37). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  3. Parasuraman, S., & Greenhaus, J. (1999). Integrating work and family: Challenges and choices for a changing world. Westport, CT: Praeger.
  4. Pitt-Catsouphes, M., Kossek, E. E., & Sweet, S. (Eds.). (2006). The work and family handbook: Multidisciplinary perspectives and approaches. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  5. Schneider B., & Waite, L. J. (2005). Being together, working apart: Dual-career families and the work-life balance. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  6. Williams, J. (2000). Unbending gender: Why family and work conflict and what to do about it. New York: Oxford University Press.

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