The study is the first to suggest repetitive thought as a driving force behind job-related stress and health problems.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated November 17, 2016

A good work-life balance can be hard to attain, and you probably know that conflicts between your job and personal life can damage your physical and mental health. But a new study suggests that dwelling on these conflicts—and thinking about them over and over again—can make things even worse.

The study set out to determine whether “repetitive thought” was a direct cause of health problems related to conflicts between work and family life. This psychology term refers to thinking repeatedly and attentively about something, and having difficulty controlling or stopping those thoughts. In this case, that something is the parts of one’s job and one’s personal life that clash with each other—a late-afternoon meeting that prevents you from seeing your kid’s soccer game, for example.

Research in other areas has shown that repetitive thought prevents people from being able to recover from stress on a daily basis. To determine its effects on work-related stress specifically, researchers recruited 203 adults with romantic partners and/or kids living at home.

The researchers quizzed the participants and scored them in areas such as life satisfaction, fatigue, and self-reported health. They also rated their frequency of positive and negative moods, and looked at their health history as it pertained to 22 different conditions such as stroke and diabetes.

The participants were asked about how much their jobs interfered with their family life, and how often they had intrusive thoughts about these conflicts.

As in previous studies, people who had more work-family conflicts tended to score lower on all measures of health and well-being. For most of the categories, the researchers were able to draw a direct correlation between the two.

But for the first time, these results suggest that repetitive thinking had a lot to do with why.

People who reported a lot of repetitive thinking had even lower health and well-being scores than those who didn’t think about their work conflicts as much. And for the measures where a direct link couldn’t be established—like negative affect (a.k.a. bad mood), for example—an indirect one was found when repetitive thinking was taken into account.

In simplified terms, work-family conflicts themselves didn’t necessarily make the participants unhappy on a regular basis. But they did, on average, for those who thought about them more frequently.

Kelly D. Davis, Ph.D., assistant professor of family health and human development at Oregon State University, says that repetitive thought is similar to two other thought processes: rumination (dwelling on things that already happened) and worry (feeling anxious about what will happen in the future). All three can have harmful effects on health, she says.

But even if you can’t reduce your work-family conflicts, you can do something about how you think of them. One coping strategy Davis recommends? Practicing mindfulness.

Davis describes being mindful as intentionally paying attention to the present moment—including physical sensations, perceptions, moods, thoughts, and imagery—in a nonjudgmental way. (It’s also a well-established strategy for improving mental health in many forms, from election-related stress to focus and memory.)

"You stay in the moment and acknowledge what you are feeling, recognize that those are real feelings, and process them, putting things in perspective," Davis said in a press release.

"In the hypothetical baseball game example, the person could acknowledge the disappointment and frustration he was feeling as legitimate, honest feelings,” she continued. “And then also think in terms of, 'these meeting conflicts don't happen that often, there are lots of games left for me to watch my child play, etc.'"

Davis points out, however, that employers need to make changes, as well.

"There needs to be strategies at the organizational level as well as the individual level," she said. "For example, a business could implement mindfulness training or other strategies in the workplace that make it a more supportive culture, one that recognizes employees have a life outside of work and that sometimes there's conflict.”

These practices could have good return-on-investment for companies, she says, especially those whose employees are caring for children or aging parents.

Davis says that planning ahead and having backup plans to manage work and family conflicts can help reduce stress. But that’s not always possible, she adds, especially for low-income families.

"Not all of us are so fortunate to have backup plans for our family responsibilities to stop us from repetitively thinking about work-family conflict," she said. "It's the organizational support and culture that matter most. Knowing there's a policy you can use without backlash maybe is almost as beneficial as actually using the policy. It's also important for managers and executives to be modeling that too, going to family events and scheduling time to fit all of their roles."

The study was funded by Pennsylvania State University’s Social Science Research Institute and Penn State’s Center for Healthy Aging, and was published in the journal Stress & Health.

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