Work-to-family conflict is when events that occur at work bleed into your personal life. Taking office drama and stressors home with you can have a negative effect on your health (mental and physical) and strain the relationship between you and your loved ones. Over the past few months I have discussed different factors that can help or hinder work-to-family conflict.
These factors are all legitimate but neglect one extremely challenging situation: working with your significant other.
I have worked with at the same company as my wife 3 times since we were engaged and later married. As enjoyable as it generally was, there definitely were some challenges. Here are four tips that will help reduce some of the challenges for those who are in this situation. These tips are written from the employee perspective but managers, listen up as some of these suggestions can definitely help your practice as well.
1) You are not married/engaged/partnered/dating at work. The biggest challenge from my personal experience has been coworkers assuming that because of your relationship status, you automatically know where your significant other is or that you are the same person. I can’t remember how many times my wife was given messages for me or had staff members ask her about my whereabouts. Likewise, I would get messages to pass along to her. “Tell your wife that Harvey will be there at 330.” It gets annoying real quick and is both unprofessional and a waste of company time.
My wife and I worked very hard to distinguish our relationship from our job title. A simple suggestion that colleagues call over to the office or send your significant other an email is a nice subtle way of telling people that you are not their administrative assistant. If subtle hints don’t work, you may have to address the issue in a staff meeting or a more formal setting.
To be fair, make sure you are not referring to your significant other in the familiar/lovey-dovey way. “Call my husband Frank in accounting” is inviting people to see you and Frank as one big organizational meshy beast. Instead make sure to say something along the lines of “Frank in accounting can help you with that.” It seems simple but even the best of us can forget whether we are wearing our work hat or personal hat when talking about those we love. Referring and treating your significant other as you would any coworker is crucial in creating this divide.
2) You are not one employee. This is similar to the first point but I teased it out because Point #1 refers to relationships with coworkers. This second point focuses more on the organization you work for and to a large extent management. Be careful that the company distinguishes between you and your significant other completely. Smaller organizations are guilty of this more than larger ones but it happens everywhere. What do I mean? Let me tell you a quick story. I once temped for a company my wife worked at. I was only working there for a few weeks and although my wife was in a different department than me she ended up providing me with the majority of resources I needed to do my job. Heck, the company would not even give me an email account or access to their network drive (and I need this access. How tacky is it to tell coworkers to send emails to a gmail account, right?) and so my wife became my lifeline. Would this have happened if I was not married to her? Probably not. The point is, because we were married the organization blended our identities together and saw me as an extension of my wife rather than as a separate employee. Likewise, at a previous employer where I received free housing benefits as part of my compensation package, some members of management would cite the free housing as a benefit and justification of wife’s compensation package. Housing had nothing to do with her job. If she were not married to me she would not have received that privilege. Although such bleeding is not likely, it can happen. Make sure to advocate for yourself and correct management when appropriate.
3) Talk shop at the office, not at home. This was a tough one for us to learn. When you work at the same place and interact with several of the same people, “how was your day honey” can turn into an office complain-o-rama real quick. Even if the banter is not all whiny and negative, it can be easy to talk about little else other than work. After a time it can make your relationship seem stale and lack excitement. Keep business talk at the office or agree not to talk about work for more than a few minutes each night. The boundaries are different for every couple but at some point time at home should be spent on building your relationship.
4) Take a break from each other. If you work closely with your significant other or see them a lot at work, consider having some “you time.” For me this came in the form of my evening martial arts training. I love my wife but the fact that we saw each other quite often meant that we had to take a little time to be apart. It was nothing dramatic but even an hour every day or so can make a difference. Constant contact forces our work boundaries to be blurred and integrated whether we like it or not. Small breaks can create some breathing space and help untangle some of those strands so that work and home life become a little more distinct.
Final Thought…. I love working at the same company as my wife. To be honest, I miss the days when we could have lunch together and in some cases collaborate on projects. That being said working with my significant other presented challenges. For those of you in that position remember two things: make sure the organization knows the difference between the two of you and make sure you are taking steps to ensure that your homelife is not an extention of your worklife.