Changing roles increase family, work pressures on men

Recently, I spent an evening listening to a focus group with some young New Hampshire working fathers who were talking about the challenges of trying to be great dads while, at the same time, trying to do their best at work.

“It just seems like I’m always battling with myself over whom or what should come first. I know it’s important to be home in time to play and take care of the baths and bedtime,” said one father, “but then I worry that if I don’t stay and finish a project or don’t volunteer for some extra work, I won’t be seen as ‘cutting it’ by my boss.”

“Yeah,” said another young dad, “I want to be the dad who is there at the important times — the dad who you can count on. But I’m also the one everybody is counting on over at my job, and it seems like a lot of time my work has to come first. We might be able to get by without my wife’s salary, I don’t know, but we sure can’t make it without mine.”

These New Hampshire fathers aren’t alone. Although a lot of the recent press (and even the content of this column) has focused on the needs of working women with respect to work and family life, there is considerable evidence that working men’s job and family roles are changing rapidly. It appears that along with this change men are finding increasing conflict between the pressures of working in a shaky economic climate and a social pressure to take on more and more responsibility at home.

As I listened to the father’s group, I became painfully aware of a trend that the research on work and family life is just beginning to reflect: that the change in family roles that has taken place between men and women in recent decades has caused increasing imbalance in men’s lives.

The research is clear from a number of different sources: Men are taking on more and more responsibility in their families’ lives. Men are more likely to have a greater role in child-rearing and family chores and more responsibilities than ever before, while at the same time, on the whole, working longer hours than their female counterparts.

This isn’t to downplay the effects of work and family conflict on women, simply to note that men need to be encouraged to join the conversation over workplace flexibility and work/life “fit” policies because the conflict appears to be having profound effects on both their physical and mental health.

We are all painfully aware of the recent stress studies that show the increasing heart disease rates associated with men in stressful work and family roles. There also is recent evidence from two European studies that men who experience work and family conflict have higher rates of mental illness.

According to a recent study at the Families and Work Institute (available at, several factors predict work and family conflict and imbalance in fathers:

• Each additional hour worked per week increases the likelihood of work and family conflict.

• Having a spouse or partner who works for pay increases the probability of experiencing work/family imbalance.

• High levels of job pressure increase work and family conflict

The same study also found some clear predictors of what can reduce work and family conflict for working men:

• Each additional hour spent doing something for oneself decreases the possibility of work/life imbalance.

• Having a supportive supervisor reduces work and family imbalance.

• Greater autonomy and flexibility on the job decrease work/life conflict.

This month, when we celebrate fatherhood, seems like a good time to really listen and learn how we can better support the working fathers in our lives. After all, the well-being of many of our most valuable New Hampshire resources, our families, depends upon them.

Dr. Malcolm Smith is family life and family policy specialist with UNH Cooperative Extension and teaches in the University of New Hampshire Family Studies Program. He can be reached at 603-862-7008, or