Why Work Stress Is Bad for Your Relationships

Research explains how and why work stress impacts relationships at home.

Posted Mar 03, 2018

Source: Caio_triana/Pixabay

Work-life balance is all about finding ways to prioritize work while also prioritizing life outside of work (for example: health, pleasure, family, leisure). Although work-life balance looks a little different for everyone, a lack of work-life balance tends to be a common problem. Sometimes our problems at work bleed into our home lives, even when we try to keep them separate. If you have noticed that the challenges you face at work seem to be impacting your relationship at home, there is a model to help you make sense of why and how this happens.

But first, let’s talk through two types of work-life conflict you might experience:

Work-family conflict happens when role pressures at work hamper functioning at home. For example, when working late several nights in a row to complete an important but time consuming project, you might fail to do your fair share of the housework. This type of conflict is more likely to happen to people who are Type A (ambitious, organized, high energy, competitive, impatient), have negative emotions or outlook, experience job demands including work pressure and/or having to “fake” emotions like staying positive even when dealing with rude customers, have an undesirable work time schedule, or feel overloaded at work. Work-family conflict is related to hostile interactions between partners as well as reduced marital and life satisfaction.

Family-work conflict happens when roles at home interfere with work. A good example of this is when you have a sick child and have to leave work to get him/her from daycare. Your role as parent is interfering with your role as employee.

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The spillover-crossover model

Both of these types of conflict may lead to spillover and crossover, ideas central to the spillover-crossover model. The spillover-crossover model provides another way to look at the push and pull people experience between work and life is. This model, developed by Drs. Arnold Bakker and Evangelia Demerouti, explains how and why stress at work can bleed into our home life, and even impact our partner’s wellbeing. Let’s break it down:

Spillover happens when you bring your work stress home with you and end up working at home, or worrying and ruminating about work at home. Spillover is an individual experience. The basic idea is that we don’t always leave work at work and instead end of focusing on work at the expense of focusing on our social or family lives when away from work.

Crossover happens when the work stress you brought home starts to affect your partner. The stress is from your job is effectively crossing over to a completely separate person. This can happen through the transfer of negative emotions or even burnout (complete exhaustion due to overwork and job stress). Researchers have found that exposure to a burned-out partner increases one’s own level of burnout. This is an interactive process between two people.

The model says that spillover leads to crossover. Spillover is contained within one person. When you feel stressed at work, you might also feel stressed at home. Crossover by definition must impact more than one person. In a study of spillover crossover among dual-earner parents, Dr. Demerouti and her team found that job demands impact life satisfaction and that experiencing work-family conflict explains how job demands influence life satisfaction. In other words, experiencing more job demands leads to increased work-family conflict which then impacts life satisfaction.

Fortunately, the spillover-crossover model is just as likely to work in a positive direction as a negative one. It is not all about bringing stress home and burdening your partner. Positive experiences at work like satisfaction can spillover to feeling more satisfied at home which can then influence your partner’s satisfaction in a positive way. Other attributes research has shown spillover and crossover include quality of life, autonomy, social support, work engagement, and vigor.

This model shows that the good aspects of work can positively influence our lives at home and our partners. Perhaps more important however is to be aware of how the negative aspects of work can influence the rest of our lives and the people closest to us.


Bakker, A. B., & Demerouti, E. (2013). The spillover-crossover model. New frontiers in work and family research, 54-70.

Demerouti, E., Bakker, A. B., & Schaufeli, W. B. (2005). Spillover and crossover of exhaustion and life satisfaction among dual-earner parents. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 67(2), 266-289.

Greenhaus, J. H., & Powell, G. N. (2006). When work and family are allies: A theory of work-family enrichment. Academy of management review, 31(1), 72-92.

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