Home strife versus work life: The impact of family incivility

We’re often told not to bring our home problems to the office; or conversely not to bring work stresses home. But in today’s era of multitasking, flexible working and 24/7 contact, is it really that easy to draw a line between our work and home lives?

I have spent several years researching the impact incivility has on our professional lives and on business productivity. Incivility – non-violent, rude or disrespectful behaviour – can take numerous forms and its effects on those who receive it can vary widely. An act that one individual might simply brush off and forget, for example, might cause deep psychological hurt on another.

One area that has received little attention is the impact of incivility in the family environment on job performance. Family incivility might include sarcasm, shouting at or demeaning someone, or ignoring them altogether, but does not necessarily imply an intention to cause hurt.

In the workplace, incivility can be governed by written policies and sanctions – for example in corporate human resource policies and personnel contracts.

Zero-tolerance

familyrowHowever, in a family situation, expectations about the norms of behaviour are more implicit than formal. As a result, family members may have different perceptions of where the boundaries lie or what is considered “acceptable” or “forgivable” – sometimes perpetuating negative behaviour within the family.

From a business perspective, there has been a growing understanding in recent years of the importance of employee well-being, stress-management and zero-tolerance policies towards workplace abuse.

Nonetheless, surprisingly few employers take time to understand or address how family issues and tensions such as incivility at home can affect employee performance. Indeed there is a tendency to see such issues as relatively harmless and less deserving of sympathy from supervisors.

Yet understanding incivility’s effects and the characteristics of individuals who are more vulnerable to its detrimental impact is important to avoid compromising the welfare of both employees and businesses.

In our study we surveyed over 200 employees and found that family incivility can have far-reaching impact – much more so than is commonly thought.

Beyond creating a toxic family environment where self-worth is undermined and family ties damaged, we found that experiencing disrespect within the family can create psychological distress at work, resulting in lower work performance.

Individuals who face family incivility often worry and feel anxious why they have such issues and agonise over how to resolve them. When this anxiety is carried over to the workplace, it drains them of their energy, making them less able to concentrate on their work – fuelling a cycle of unhappiness and unproductivity.

Likewise, as with victims of bullying who become bullies themselves, those who experience incivility may also go on to deliver it in the workplace – in part because they have come to see such behaviour as “normal”. In one example, an employee was reprimanded for repeated sarcastic comments towards his co-workers; something he thought was funny but which had come to bother his colleagues.

Aggravating factors

Of course, not everyone is similarly affected by family incivility. Our study found that employees who have higher self-esteem experience less family incivility while those with lower self-esteem, who feel they have no control over matters, were observed to not only experience more uncivil family behaviour, but were also less able to handle its detrimental effects.

ThinkAloud4Such employees became psychologically more distressed and doubtful over their power to change the family situation. To resolve tensions, they may minimise contact with family members and spend even more time at work – a response which can itself backfire because spending more time at work only aggravates work-family conflict.

By understanding how family tension can influence work stress and performance, companies can develop and engage in more effective employee welfare programmes.

Such activities might involve sponsored family therapist seminars to help employees recognise if they have family issues, and how to address them in order to avoid or minimise impact on their work performance.

In contrast to physical abuse, uncivil behaviours are often tolerated at home and can be easily perpetuated by anyone in the family, from parents to siblings to children. As a result, employees may not realise the frequency to which such incivility occurs in their own home or that it is affecting their work performance.

Such seminars can help employees identify causes of family incivility, learn strategies to minimise and cope with such incivility, and recognise the consequences of family tensions on work performance.

Companies can also do their part to encourage civility at work and create conditions that enhance employees’ self-esteem.

For example, encouragement from supervisors such as positive feedback on tasks, role models, and pep talks can help to boost employees’ self-esteem, as can job transitions or swaps and assignments to other departments or overseas offices.

In sum, companies can benefit from looking at ways to support employees and help them develop strategies to cope with stressful events within and beyond the organisation. While the enhancement of various parental and childcare leave schemes by the government has improved pro-family environment in Singapore, it is important to recognise that maintaining a healthy work-family balance is not limited to juggling work and childcare responsibilities. All employees – married, single, with or without children – can be affected by issues such as family incivility, and more can be done to help employees deal with such stress at home.

  • Author Profile

    Sandy Lim is an associate professor in the Department of Management and Organisation at NUS Business School. Her research interests include workplace incivility, occupational health and organisational culture and change.

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