Coping with Overload and Stress: Men and Women in Dual-Earner Families

By Higgins, Chris A.; Duxbury, Linda E. et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 2010 | Go to article overview

Coping with Overload and Stress: Men and Women in Dual-Earner Families


Higgins, Chris A., Duxbury, Linda E., Lyons, Sean T., Journal of Marriage and Family


This study tested gender differences in a model positing relationships between work and family demands, overload, 4 coping mechanisms, and stress. The coping mechanisms were hypothesized to moderate the relationship between overload and stress. The sample consisted of 1,404 men and 1,623 women in dual-earner families. Respondents relied on 2 coping strategies: scaling back and restructuring family roles. Men were more likely than women to respond to overload by scaling back and less likely to respond by work-role restructuring. Coping by family-role restructuring moderated the relationship between role overload and stress for both groups; however, the gender difference was not significant. Coping by work-role restructuring moderated the relationship between overload and stress only for men.

Key Words: coping, dual-earner families and work, multiple roles, resiliency, stress.

Recent decades have seen dramatic increases in the demands placed on dual-earner families. Technology has made it possible for employees to work any time, anywhere. Demands at home have increased, fueled by greater numbers of employed mothers, dual-earner families, and employed individuals with elder care responsibilities. These changes have contributed to an increase in role overload as employees struggle to accommodate the various demands placed on them by their work and family lives (Duxbury & Higgins, 2003).

Role overload has been shown to have numerous stress-related outcomes, including anxiety, fatigue, burnout, and decreased satisfaction with family and work (Bacharach, Bamberger, & Conley 1991; Coverman, 1989; Frone, Yardley, & Markel 1 997). It has also been linked to higher rates of absenteeism, lower levels of commitment, turnover intentions, and poorer physical and mental health (Duxbury & Higgins, 2003). Given the prevalence of overload and its negative consequences, it is surprising that the concept has garnered relatively scant research attention.

This study compares dual-earner men and women in terms of the coping mechanisms that they employ to deal with role overload. We define role overload as a time-based form of role conflict in which one perceives that the collective demands of multiple roles exceed available time and energy resources, thereby making an individual unable to fulfill adequately the requirements of various roles. Role overload can be distinguished from other types of time-based conflict, which occur because of simultaneously occurring demands from multiple roles, and from strain-based forms of role conflict, which occur when the strains of one role spill over into other roles (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985). Furthermore, unlike role interference, which arises because of mutually incompatible role demands from multiple senders, role overload is related to the totality of time demands placed on an individual (Kahn, Wolfe, Quinn, Snoek, & Rosenthal, 1964).

Past studies incorporating the concept of overload have largely focused on overload in the separate domains of work and family (Bacharach et al., 1991). Although domain-specific overload has been shown to be important in its own right, there is value in considering overload in the total role set as a separate construct. Kahn et al. (1964) argued that overload in any single role is not a necessary precondition for overload in the total role set. Even when specific roles are not overly demanding when considered in isolation, the combination of multiple roles can lead to perceived overload in total. In concordance with Kahn et al. 's (1964) argument, we conceptualize role overload as total role overload, the culmination of overdemand across one's total role set.

A Model of Overload, Coping, and Stress

Our theoretical model (see Figure 1) posits that increased family and work demands lead to an increased perception of role overload, as having more responsibilities in either or both of these roles makes it more difficult to manage the total demands of the role set (Coverman, 1989; Frone etal. …

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