Hot Topics in Work and Family Research

When I was the Director of the Work and Family Researchers Network (WFRN), I was often asked about the cutting edge or latest research on work and family issues. As we celebrate National Work and Family Month, here's my view of the topic areas that are getting the most attention from the global community of work and family scholars. My opinion stems from the 200 sessions at the WFRN conference, Changing Work and Family Relationships in a Global Economy, held in New York City last June. With over 700 attendees from 42 countries, just about every work and family topic imaginable was on the conference program.

Blurring gender boundaries and the evolving roles of dads: We are finally moving away from viewing work and family issues as strictly a women's or mother's issue. In The New Dad: Take Your Leave, the Boston College Center for Work & Family found that today's fathers expect to participate in the lives of their children and are looking for workplace supports to facilitate their involvement. This past June, the White House hosted an event on working dads to "explore the outdated stereotypes of fathers." The Pew Research Center recently reported on the increase in stay-at-home dads, and how equal numbers of mothers and fathers are struggling to manage their work and family lives. The Families and Work Institute found that dads experience more work-life conflict than moms. Lastly, much has been written about how Gen Y dads, our youngest generation of dads, expect to have jobs where they will work hard, but also will prioritize family and non-work pursuits.

Technology impacts our ability to manage our work and family lives: The use of information and communications technology (ICT) can be both a stress reliever as well as a stress producer. ICT can blur the boundaries between home and work. For some, it may be helpful to catch up on work in the evenings or on weekends, while for others it may feel like a burden or dreaded expectation. ICT allows family and friends to stay connected via various devices, but can also create distance by interfering with our being fully present with each other and promoting superficial rather than meaningful connections. Noelle Chesley found that increased ICT usage results in more worker distress, particularly when employees are working during non-work hours. In Modern Day Communication Technology: Empowerment or Enslavement?, Uthpala Senarathne Tennakoon found that ICT use outside of work created a "negative self-reinforcing spiral" where work interfered with one's ability to enjoy non-work time and then caused reduced effectiveness at work. In fact, the ability to set firm boundaries around work and non-work time helped to reduce work-life conflict. These feelings of work overload can have a negative impact on organizational commitment as well as on significant others.

It seems clear that there are tradeoffs implicit in the use of ICT. While ICT promotes increased connectivity with our work colleagues and flexibility in where and when we work, ICT has also created new stresses and new demands. Nancy Rothbard noted that ICT blurs boundaries that can create difficulties as workers struggle to figure out how to effectively manage these new ways to work. More on the impact of technology here and here.

Overwhelmed and overworked/underworked: Stories proliferate on the pressures that today's workers feel managing demanding workloads, functioning at a frenetic pace, and needing to be available 24/7 in our global economy. In Overwhelmed, Brigid Schulte articulates how difficult it is, if not impossible, to handle our work and non-work demands. In an interesting experiment at the high-powered Boston Consulting Group, Leslie Perlow (Sleeping with your Smartphone) found the benefits of disconnecting from work one night included both greater well-being and productivity. In Baby Bust, Stew Friedman found that 42% of 2012 Wharton graduates expect to have children compared to 78% of their 1992 counterparts, since they can't figure out how to combine raising children with their anticipated demanding career, working spouse, and financial responsibilities.

However, it is important to keep in mind that although many employees have too much work, many low wage workers struggle to secure sufficient hours and predictable work schedules which goes without saying is extremely difficult and stressful.

And last but not least (yawn), Sleep, health and productivity: The Harvard Medical School Division of Sleep Medicine reports that "sleep plays a critical role in immune function, metabolism, memory, learning, and other vital functions." There are a whole host of difficulties that can result from sleep deprivation including heart disease, distractedness, and car accidents. Yet in the US, a December 2013 Gallup Poll found that 40% of people get less than the recommended amount sleep of at least 7 hours.

Given the topics mentioned above - parents experiencing considerable work and family conflict, many of us using devices that blur the boundaries between home and work with limited time for family interaction and relaxation, plus many having too much work and not enough time to do it, or stressed by not finding enough work to manage financial demands - it is not surprising that sleep takes a hit. Yet the evidence is compelling that sufficient sleep is necessary for creativity, productivity and well-being.

As we celebrate National Work and Family Month, there is considerable research on many work and family issues that can make a difference in the lives of today's working families around the world. I wonder what will be on the docket for the WFRN 2016 conference...