Overlapping boundaries between work and domestic life

For women and men alike, the working sphere and the private sphere are not entirely separate. There are intrusions in both directions: work encroaches on the domestic sphere and similarly, private life spills over into the workplace. This overlap sometimes leads to better organization but can also be a source of tension.

It is more common to see work affecting family life than the contrary. Men and women today are equally concerned by the intrusion of work into their private lives. However, women tend to be more preoccupied by their family lives at work than their counterparts, as they still assume the majority of domestic responsibilities.

Work impringes equally for men and women

Only a minority of people report that their professional life breaches the realm of their private lives (3 out of 10, including those officially working from home). It is often assumed that this encroachment is more common among men. However the increasing number of women in the workforce has changed the status quo and today work permeates into the home in similar proportions for men and women. Nevertheless, there are slight differences between men and women in the way this situation is handled. Exclusively working within the home is still rare (4% of the working population) and is more frequent among women. A more common situation, among men especially, is that of employees who consider the home to be one of their workplaces or who often or sometimes bring work home (25%). These differences partially stem from occupational segmentation between the sexes, as the risk of intrusion varies by type of occupation.

Entre famille et travail, des arrangements de couples aux pratiques des employeurs (2009) is a collective work that looks at the results of the “Familles et employeurs” survey (Families and employers survey, INED, 2005). The survey was conducted on a sample of9,547 people and their employers on the theme of the work-life balance. Two chapters of this book are devoted to the overlapping boundaries between work and family.

New means of communication and extensions of the work place

The intermingling of these two realms has accelerated with the development of technology in the home and the diffusion of portable computers and the Internet, even outside any formalized teleworking system. Mobile phones make it easier to contact colleagues or superiors during time reserved for family or private life. Close to 7 out of 10 employees, more commonly men, report having been contacted by a colleague or superior outside work. Only a handful of employees wish to and/or succeed in protecting themselves from this intrusion of their professional life into their personal life: 5% choose not to share their personal telephone number.

Discussing or thinking of work at home: normal or burdensome?

The majority of employees discuss their work with their partner: 72% talk about the content of their work and 80% discuss their relationship with colleagues or superiors. This type of conversation has become the norm among younger generations. Women, younger women in particular, discuss their work even more frequently with their partner than men do. This illustrates the importance placed on work by these younger generations.
Worries about work also accompany people into the private sphere. More than two thirds of men and women in employment report that they often or occasionally think of work outside working hours (figure 1). One in ten find this burdensome, and more than one third, mostly women, would like to clear their minds of work, but without success. Less than one-quarter of persons in employment, men more so than women, find it normal to think of work at home.
During the course of a lifetime, this mental or tangible presence of work increases for men. After age 35, they are more preoccupied by their professional problems and work more frequently from home.

Fatigue after work: as frequent in women as in men

In addition to the mental strain, women are also more regularly physically tired after a day’s work than men: "always" for one-quarter of women versus one-fifth of men, "sometimes" for slightly more than half of women and men. The most common reason cited among men for this fatigue is work intensity. They also more frequently mention the strenuousness of their work and their working hours.
Women on the other hand, more often mention the work atmosphere and other reasons that may be linked to the difficulty of separating work and family life.

Domestic preoccupations in the workplace are stronger for women

 In turn, familial and domestic preoccupations penetrate the work place, and tend to be more intense among women than among men. While men and women both do personal paperwork or make leisure plans in the workplace, certain tasks are a lot more gender-specific (figure 2).

For instance, 27% of women plan to do grocery shopping compared with 15% of men, and 66% of women talk about the health of their family as opposed to 47% of men. This asymmetry in roles is equally strong among couples with or without children. Men more frequently contact friends or family while they are working, though their longer average working hours and the socio-occupational context doubtless play a part here.

Three types of arrangements between working and private spheres

Persons in employment organize their lives in three different ways. While 20% of those employed succeed in dissociating their working and private lives, 40% mention a manageable overlap between the two spheres. This is partly due to precautions taken to prevent work from encroaching upon the domestic sphere (for instance by refusing to be contacted outside working hours). Finally, for the remaining 40%, the professional and the private spheres are closely intertwined. This produces strong emotional and physical strain, especially among women who still assume most domestic responsibilities.

Is France a unique case in Europe ?

Familial responsibilities rarely disrupt working life in France: 6% of men and 8% of women experience this kind of distraction when working. According to the Quality of Life Survey by the Dublin Foundation, France along with Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, and Denmark, are among the European countries where the proportions reporting this kind of disruption are smallest. However, the French, especially French women, are among those who most often report missing out on time with their families and friends as well as for leisure. Even so, the negative effects of work do not severely disrupt family life in France. Fewer than 2 in 10 French employed people report difficulties several time per month in fulfilling their domestic responsibilities due to time spent working, compared with more than 3 in 10 on average in the European Union. Likewise, 44% of French women report frequently returning home from work too tired to accomplish household duties, compared with 52% on average for European women.

Source: Ariane Pailhé et Anne Solaz (dir.), 2009, Entre famille et travail - Des arrangements de couples aux pratiques des employeurs, La Decouverte, Paris. [FR]
Contact : Michel Bozon, Ariane Pailhé, Anne Solaz
Online : march 2010