As the workforce continues to return to the office, it’s hard to ignore the impact homelife has on work life. There have been plenty of research and think pieces on the ways work can intrude on our personal lives, even before the pandemic introduced work-from-home and telework to all of our lexicons. Oftentimes, it can seem like employers want their employees feeling like they never have a spare minute to relax and do the things most important to them emotionally – something technology has made even harder to avoid. There has been little research, however, on the reverse: how homelife can intrude on work.
The University of Arkansas’s Christopher Rosen and Lauren Simon, along with their coauthors Mahira Ganster, Allison Gabriel, Marcus Butts, and Wendy Boswell explore just this. In “Retreating or Repairing? Examining the Alternate Linkages Between Daily Partner-Instigated Incivility at Home and Helping at Work,” these researchers ask what is it that workers bring with them to work when they experience incivility from their significant other at home before the work day begins. Incivility here means ambiguously hurtful behavior rather than outright hostile behavior (the researchers were not measuring abuse or clear disagreements).
The researchers found that, perhaps counterintuitively, partner incivility largely encouraged workers to pursue positive relationships—in the form of helping others—at work in order to improve the negative mood they brought with them to work.
Regardless of the outcomes, workers experience incivility as a stressor, so it isn’t necessarily desirable to induce such feelings in employees (the conspiracy theories almost write themselves!). But the emotional depletion that comes with incivility seems to motivate workers to help coworkers “in the hopes the target reciprocates,” the researchers observe.
So, you wake up to find your partner forgot to bring you a cup of coffee like they do every morning, or they snap at you when you ask what their day was looking like. These are examples of incivility. They’re not necessarily intended to be hurtful behavior… or are they? Is your partner stressed or angry at you for asking the same banal question for the umpteenth time? This is the crux of incivility’s emotional strain. It’s ambiguous what your partner meant and, therefore, how forgiving you ought to be for the behavior.
Members of the research team have explored the impact of incivility on work before, but their earlier research primarily tested its effects within the boundaries of work, not when it begins at home. In this way, Rosen, Simon, and the research team help us better understand what exactly workers are bringing with them to work.
To test the effects of homelife incivility on workers, the researchers initially surveyed a representative group of people and randomly assigned them to recall a time their partner behaved either uncivilly or civilly. Those participants then completed a survey measuring how that memory changed their mood and cognitive resources.
Because the survey relied on participants’ memories, the researchers allow that some
experiences may have differed slightly from what was recollected, but results from
the questionnaire suggested there is a strong relationship between incivility at home
and both negative mood and cognitive resource depletion.
Once Rosen, Simon, and the team of researchers linked partner incivility to negative mood and depleted cognitive resources using an experimental design, they aimed to replicate and extend these in the field. To do so, they recruited couples—one who was considered the employee in the study and the other who was considered the partner—and had them complete surveys across 10 workdays. The partner completed a survey each morning to report any uncivil behavior towards the employee. Later in each day, the employee completed measures of their cognitive depletion, mood, and helping behavior. Their results showed that incivility specifically depleted a worker’s cognitive resources. Likewise, partner-instigated incivility correlated with negative mood at work in the afternoon.
Most interesting, though, was the presence a “mood repair” effect—employees who were in a bad mood at work as result of experiencing incivility from their partners tended to be more likely to help their coworkers in an effort to lift their own spirits. Participants who helped coworkers actually felt better in the evening when they came home from work. An important caveat, however, is that this was only true when employees helped their coworkers with personal problems. Participants who helped coworkers with work tasks felt worse. The researchers theorized that helping coworkers with interpersonal problems fosters a sense of connection that is mood boosting without increasing workload. Helping with additional work tasks, on the other hand, increases workload and may offer less opportunity to feel connected, stifling mood repair.
What can we make of all this? While incivility at home seems to intuitively sap the emotional resources workers need to call on in order to engage others, it also seems to play a role in motivating workers to seek positive relationships at work to improve their moods. In either case, the researchers point out that partner-instigated incivility causes strain in the workplace. The difference lies in how workers cope with this stress.
Unpacking Emotional Baggage at Work
Rosen, Simon, and their coauthors do not believe nor argue that incivility at home represents some untapped resource for managers even though it can induce some pro-social behavior. Instead, their research highlights an adaptive coping mechanism that can help repair the effects of incivility experienced at home and that might be useful for employees and managers to have in their “toolkits” for when difficulties at home inevitably arise from time to time.
The researchers argue that managers need to be aware of what employees are bringing to work with them after they experience incivility at home and that managers should help employees find ways to recover at work. Rosen has shown, for example, how a good workout can help workers restore some of their motivation during the workday.
In any case, the researchers argue that “organizations should also take a proactive stand to promote and protect the wellbeing of employees.”