There is a common perception that employees with families are less committed to their work than single, childless employees. Single, childless employees tend to be perceived as “ideal workers” because it is assumed they do not have other obligations outside of work. However, this study found that single, childless workers in fact report lower absorption in their work than those with other family structures. The authors discovered that anticipating domestic activities after work, as opposed to leisure activities, can reinforce the “work mindset” and result in higher absorption at work. This is because domestic activities and work tasks are similarly goal-directed and obligatory. Since workers who have a spouse and / or children anticipate more domestic activities after work, their work absorption is higher than that of single, childless workers. This research suggests that employers need to be cautious when making assumptions about employees’ attitudes and dedication to work based on their family and personal lives.
Anticipating domestic activities after work, as opposed to leisure activities, can reinforce the “work mindset” and result in higher absorption at work.
The authors conducted two studies to measure the effect of family structure on employees’ absorption in their work. The first study was an analysis of a survey conducted with 469 alumni from an American university’s business school. The survey asked questions about respondents’ perceived levels of work absorption, such as how much they agreed with the statement “Nothing can distract me when I am working”. It also asked about their family structure, to see if there was a significant relationship between these two variables.
The second study tested how employees’ anticipation of domestic or leisure activities after work affected their work absorption. Domestic activities include tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children, while leisure activities include activities like going out with friends, playing sports, or watching movies. This study was a daily diary survey, where 97 employees of a university recorded their plans after work, and how absorbed they were in their work, for five consecutive days. A supplement to this study was conducted with 196 other working adults. It was also a daily diary survey, but in addition to recording their after-work activities and work absorption, respondents also identified whether they felt their after-work activities were goal-directed, obligatory, or an escape from their routine.
Results for the first study showed that single, childless employees reported lower work absorption than those with other family structures, even when controlling for other variables like gender, age, and job level.
The second study examined why employees with different family structures have different work absorption. The authors analyzed daily diary survey results and discovered that anticipating domestic activities after work increased work absorption, while anticipating leisure activities after work decreased work absorption. While single, childless workers did not report anticipating a significantly different number of after-work activities than those with other family structures, they did anticipate fewer domestic activities. This resulted in their lower work absorption.
In the supplement to the second study, the authors found that respondents tended to view domestic activities as more obligatory and goal-directed than leisure activities. Perceiving after-work activities as obligatory and goal-directed caused higher work absorption because it reinforced employees’ work-related mindset during the work day. On the other hand, due to a lack of association with goal direction and sense of obligation, anticipating after-work leisure activities decreased employees’ absorption at work.
Childless employees reported lower work absorption than those with other family structures, even when controlling for other variables.
- Managers can mitigate bias against parents and caregivers in their evaluations of their commitment to work–Employers may think that parents or other caregivers are uncommitted or unfocused workers because they face obligations outside of work. Yet, this study shows that having domestic work to do later on in their day makes employees more absorbed in their work, and it is parents and spouses who are most likely to have these obligations. Managers should acknowledge this finding and mitigate bias against parents and caregivers in their evaluations of their commitment.
- Managers can pay attention to the work-life needs of single, childless–Single, childless workers have a similar number of after-work activities as those in other family structures. Employers should not assume that single, childless workers do not have other obligations or that they are available to work extended hours: this puts an unnecessary burden on them. Further, organizations can support single, childless workers in pursuing goal-directed activities outside of work, like volunteering or professional development. This will increase employee work absorption while also benefitting workers’ careers and skills.
The Paradox of Family Structure and Plans After Work: Why Single Childless Employees May be the Least Absorbed
Tracy L. Dumas and Jill E. Perry-Smith
Academy of Management Journal