Expert Commentary

When you just cannot get away: Technology and work-life spillover

2013 study in Information, Communication & Society on the rates at which frequent users of communications technologies report work-life conflicts.

Work-life balance (iStock)

The issue of whether or not U.S. workplaces should allow more telecommuting, and hence better work-life balance, continues to create controversy. But for many workers, technology has proven a mixed blessing: The Internet-enabled smartphone makes one accountable to managers and coworkers at all hours of the day, seven days a week.

Researchers have been studying the extent of this “work-home spillover” phenomenon and its impact on American life. Prior scholarship has shown that employees with greater levels of ambition are more likely to use communication technologies when not at work — but they are also likely to report having work-life conflicts. Other research has focused on how technologies are associated with the creation of more “supplemental work,” performed during off hours, and how, again, these are linked to perceived conflicts. In principle, though, technology may afford some workers greater flexibility and allow for more balance.

A 2013 study published in Information, Communication & Society, “When You Just Cannot Get Away,” analyzed responses from 1,100 individuals who participated in the Work-Life and Technology Use Survey, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The researcher looked at the frequency of ICT (information and communication technologies) use and the relationship with perceived conflicts between work and home; respondents were asked whether jobs interfered with family life (work-home), and if issues at home made workday activities more difficult (home-work). The respondents were 68% female, 68% married or co-habitating, and 89% white. The researcher notes that this sample is not fully representative of the U.S. population as a whole, and so the study must be seen as a window into these issues and not as a valid national picture.

The study’s findings include:

  • Among the respondents, 63% reported checking their work email more than once a day outside of office hours, and 61% reported checking personal email accounts while at work multiple times a day.
  • With regard to work-home dynamics, more frequent use of email was associated with negative spillovers: “These effects were found even when controlling for demographic and employment characteristics, suggesting that ICT use may play a significant role in defining the permeability of work/home boundaries and the negative consequences associated with increased boundary-blurring.”
  • Frequent use of personal email and Facebook at work was associated with negative spillovers from home life.
  • “Being female was related to scoring higher on the negative work-home spillover scale, as was being married/living with a partner and being white. Respondents belonging to the two lowest family income brackets were shown to have higher scores on the negative spillover scale (compared to those with a family income of $100,000 or more), indicating that those reporting higher family incomes also reported lower rates of spillover.” Having a child at home was also associated with higher reported levels of home-work spillover levels.
  • Some of these general spillover patterns appear to be generational: “Members of the Silent/GI Generation [ages 65 and older] continued to trend towards lower spillover scores compared to the Millennials.”
  • Interestingly, the use of Facebook at home to contact work colleagues was associated with lower reported levels of work-home spillover. This may be because the content of the message on Facebook may not be related to professional life necessarily, and therefore Facebook may actually “provide a means to lessen work-related stresses and contribute to less negative spillover.”

“In addition to what has already been suggested,” the researcher writes, “future research should also explore the potential positive effects ICTs may have on work/home spillover. This paper focuses solely on the impacts ICTs may have on negative spillover, but a body of literature suggests that ICTs may also assist in alleviating work-home and home-work conflict … and future investigations may continue to unfold the complex positive and negative relationships technology may have with work/home life.”

Tags: technology, Facebook, women and work, telecommunications

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