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Couples who work together may work better

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Sharing a workplace or having the same occupation as your spouse can come with risks. Work discussions can infiltrate family time, and it may be hard to draw boundaries between work and home life. Yet a recent study shows that spouses connected by work can provide each other with a unique form of support, making them happier at home and more productive on the job.

Research over the years has shown that satisfaction at home and work are linked: When people are happier at home, they tend to be more productive at work, and vice versa. People who perceive balance between their work and family roles generally do better in both domains than people who do not.

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Couples who share the same occupation or workplace may be in a special position to support one another, despite the potential hazards that this can pose. People in these so-called “work-linked” couples may have a better understanding of the stresses of their spouse’s job because they face similar pressures themselves, and they may be able to share specialized knowledge to help solve work-related problems. In a 2006 study, work-linked couples reported a closeness that they said had benefited their marriage.

The new study, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, explored how work-related support between spouses affects work-family balance, family satisfaction, and job satisfaction, whether or not couples are work-linked. The researchers, from Utah State University, Baylor University, and other schools, defined this type of support as having a spouse who understands the nuances of one’s job; is familiar with one’s work colleagues; is equipped to help solve work-related problems; and is able to see one’s spouse at some point during the workday. They also explored how the effects of this work-related support differed between couples who are work-linked and those who are not.

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The researchers recruited 639 men and women, around one-fifth of whom had the same occupation as their spouse, worked at the same organization, or both. The participants answered questionnaires related to work-family balance, family and job satisfaction, and the work-related support they receive from their spouses. The participants’ spouses answered questions related to family satisfaction, tension with their spouse, and how stress from their spouse’s job impacts the family.

Not surprisingly, work-related support from spouses contributed to work-family balance and was linked to higher family satisfaction and job satisfaction. However, these benefits were twice as great for couples who shared the same occupation or workplace than for those who did not. Work-related support also had a more beneficial effect on perceived relationship tension among work-linked spouses, compared to non-work-linked couples.

“When people understand their spouses’ work life and challenges — maybe the spouse is dealing with a difficult person at work, for instance — it helps the spouse feel more understood,” said Merideth Ferguson, lead author of the study and an associate professor at the Jon M. Huntsman School of Business at Utah State University. “This support may help the spouse see things in a different way. This can have positive effects both at work and at home.”

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The findings suggest that couples, including those not in the same occupation or workplace, can help foster stronger work-life balance by providing work-related support. Learning about a spouse’s industry or job role, particularly if it’s unfamiliar, and trying to socialize with each other’s colleagues outside of the office can make it easier for couples to share their days, Ferguson said.

Companies can help by finding ways to include spouses and families in events, particularly early on, she added.

“The onboarding process is a unique opportunity to help spouses feel included in an organization, even if it’s in a limited way,” Ferguson said. “[The organization could] have a dinner or a barbecue and invite not just the new associates, but their spouses as well. Or, they might look for opportunities for employees and their families to volunteer. Something about working alongside a spouse and his or her co-workers can help contribute to understanding.”

Ami Albernaz can be reached at ami.albernaz@gmail.com.
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