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Want a Better Work-life Balance? Get Your Mood Right First

Associate Professor, College of Business (Nanyang Business School)
Jul 29, 2019 4:04 AM 4 min read

Much has been said about how technology and flexi-work arrangements can help to improve work-life balance. But what if your mood — and that of your spouse — can also have an impact on that balance?


While official statistics show that the number of working hours in Singapore has been on a steady decline in recent years, work-life balance remains elusive for many employees as they still spend more time at work than their counterparts in many countries.


In 2017, Singaporeans worked an average of 45.1 hours a week, according to the Ministry of Manpower. The figure was higher than in countries noted for their infamous overwork culture, such as Japan and South Korea.


Most discourse on work-life harmony often focuses on technology and flexible work arrangements as among the solutions, and rightly so. But the conversation tends to ignore a more intangible but no less important aspect: The moods of a working couple. For such a couple, their respective positive or negative moods can spill over from the workplace to the family setting and vice-versa — which, in turn, will have an impact on work and family outcomes.


This issue of “mood spillover” and “mood crossover” among working or dual-earner couples was examined in a 2008 study involving 50 couples, who used their mobile phones to provide reports of their momentary moods over eight consecutive days.


A spillover occurs when a spouse’s bad or good mood spills over from work to family, or from family to work.


Thus, a husband’s anxiety about some unfinished project in the office may make him a less than agreeable companion during a family weekend at Sentosa, while a mother’s exasperation with a rebellious teen may affect her concentration at the morning office meeting.


A crossover happens when a spouse “catches” the positive or negative mood of the better-half, and usually takes place within the family setting. A woman may end up inspired after listening to her husband’s enthusiastic recollection of events at work.


During the study, the couples were asked to carry their mobile phones at all times and to complete a two-minute phone survey several times daily for eight consecutive days. The couples were separately asked to rate their current positive or negative moods — such as enthusiastic, inspired, or jittery, ashamed — on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely). Since phones were used, the responses were time-stamped, which offered real-time monitoring.


To determine their orientation towards work and family, the  couples were also asked to rate several statements — such as whether the major satisfactions in their life come from their job or family— on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).


The dual-career couples, who were all around 37 years old, and on average had been married for nearly 11 years and had 1.4 children. They comprised full-time employees who held various occupations, such as managers, engineers, educators, and systems analysts.


Based on the mood responses given by each spouse at different times of the day — and comparing them with the responses given by the corresponding husband/wife — the study found that spouses with a stronger work orientation were more likely to exhibit mood spillover by bringing home their negative moods — such as being upset or irritable — related to events at the workplace.


Individuals with a stronger work orientation tend to deeply value their time at work and take the greatest satisfaction in a job well done.


For such driven individuals to achieve greater work-life harmony, the study suggested, they will have to make a conscious effort in drawing a clearer line between work and family experiences, so that work moods do not necessarily affect their interactions with family members at home.


Taking a short time to clear one’s mind before leaving the office, or doing some physical exercises before heading home are among the ways to pre-empt a mood spillover into the family domain.


Employers can also do their part by putting in place family-friendly policies, such as generous parental leave or flexi-time. 


The study also found that mood crossovers — which usually occurred when the spouses were physically together — tended to have a relatively short lifespan. Thus, the one with the bad mood might want to set some time alone to decompress, even if briefly, to avoid spreading the negative vibes to the spouse.


While often momentary, the importance of mood crossover should not be discounted — since the accumulation of “small incidences”, such as daily mood crossover, may influence “bigger issues” such as marriage quality, the study cautioned.


Other studies have shown that those with a poor marital relationship exhibit more negative feelings and moods than those with a better relationship.


The study also found that the presence of children could actually have a calming effect — by reducing the likelihood of one parent infecting the other with his/her negative moods.


One possible reason could be that the parents diverted some of their attention towards their children and were thus less likely to be influenced by their spouses’ bad moods. Parents may also be conscious of the need to avoid displaying negative moods in front of their children since these could be interpreted as signs of conflict and distress in the family.


Exploring less well-known concepts, such as mood spillover and crossover, may help us further in our search for the holy grail of work-life harmony. 


About the Author


The writer is an associate professor at Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University Singapore. The research mentioned in this article is co-authored with his colleague Marilyn A. Uy, and Zhaoli Song from the National University of Singapore.


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