Going the extra mile can be a great way to get ahead at work. Studies have shown that employees who engage in more “organizational citizenship behaviors” — that is, activities that benefit the organization such as working after normal business hours or during vacation, attending work-related functions on personal time, taking on special projects, and rearranging personal plans because of work — tend to receive higher performance evaluations and more rewards such as public recognition, increases, promotions, and high-profile projects.
But of course, going above and beyond in this way can also be stressful, tiring, and potentially unsustainable — indeed, the impact of going the extra mile on individual stress levels is well-documented. However, its implications for work-family conflict (and in particular, for employees’ relationships with their partners) are still largely unknown.
To explore how employees navigate the challenges that arise when attempting to balance responsibilities at home with going the extra mile at work, we conducted a series of quantitative and qualitative studies with more than 1,000 US-based employees.
In our first two studies, we conducted in-depth interviews with 28 working couples as well as surveys with an additional 192 employees and their partners. We asked them how they communicated with their partners about unexpected, additional work demands, and identified five distinct communication strategies (in order from most to least commonly used):
- Providing early notice: Employees gave their partners advance warning that they would need to put in some extra work in the near future.
- Seeking permission: Employees asked their partners for permission to take on the extra work project.
- Negotiating logistics: Employees helped their partners deal with the potential burden that the additional work might create by supporting logistical needs (eg, arranging for a babysitter, meal delivery, etc.).
- Projecting payoffs: Employees explained how going the extra mile at work would help their career, ultimately benefiting the entire family.
- Invoking prior conversations: Employees reminded their partners that they had previously agreed that sometimes they would have to prioritize the employee’s job.
Once we mapped out these strategies, we wanted to understand how they influenced both the dynamics at home and employees’ ultimate decisions around whether to pursue the extra work. We were particularly interested in how these strategies were related to work-family conflict (ie, the extent to which the couple felt that the employee’s work interfered with their obligations at home) and partner satisfaction (ie, the extent to which the partner felt that they had a satisfying, strong, and stable relationship with the employee).
Unsurprisingly, the first three strategies (which are more partner-oriented) were received the most positively by employees’ partners, and partners reacted most poorly to the last two strategies (which are more employee-oriented). This was further supported by a follow-up experiment with more than 900 participants in which we found that people were most satisfied when their conversation gave early notice and sought permission to partners do extra work, and least satisfied when they invoked priors. Similarly, we found that the more an employee reported invoking prior conversations, the more likely the couple was to experience work-family conflict.
However, while seeking permission might be a good approach as far as partner satisfaction is concerned, we found that the employees who took this approach were least likely to actually end up pursuing the extra work (perhaps because permission is not always granted, or because the act of asking dissuades employees from taking on the extra work). Conversely, those who projected payoffs and invoked prior conversations were most likely to actually go above and beyond for their organizations (perhaps because they felt that the benefits of taking on the work outweighed the costs, or because they felt that they already had tacit permission) .
Of course, there are many factors that can influence both an employee’s decision to go the extra mile at work and their partner’s reaction to that decision. But we did control for many of these factors in our studies: For instance, we controlled for communication skills to ensure our findings reflected the impact of the specific communication strategy an employee used, not just how good they were at communicating in general. We also controlled for the type and amount of additional work being discussed, again to ensure we were measuring the impact of how people communicated about a certain behavior (rather than the behavior itself). And finally, when asking participants to describe how they’d react to different communication strategies, we described scenarios that were both energy depleting for the employee (eg, staying late at work to complete an important assignment) and enriching (eg, attending a client dinner, along with their partner, at their favorite restaurant). Understandably, people generally reported that they would react more positively to the more enriching scenario, but their satisfaction levels were still significantly influenced by the employee’s communication strategy — regardless of the scenario they described.
So, what should you do if your boss asks you to stay late for a special project, or call a client while on vacation? There are no easy answers, but we’ve identified four strategies to help you balance the sometimes-conflicting imperatives to go the extra mile at work and be a good partner at home:
1. Clarify whether extra work is actually required.
Employees often feel like extra work isn’t really optional. Even when we told the participants in our studies that an extra project was “not required,” many still assumed that they would be expected to do it. Moreover, many of the partners we talked to echoed this sentiment, expressing an assumption that their significant other had to go the extra mile in order to meet family goals and live up to the couple’s shared values and ideals.
But in many cases, going the extra mile really is extra. So especially if taking on additional work could cause problems at home, employees should clarify whether their organization really needs their help, whether the task is really as urgent as it might seem, and whether someone else could cover for them. For example, if your boss asks you to come to checking a client dinner on your day off, it’s worth double whether they really need you there, or they’re just extending an offer. Rather than jumping at every opportunity for additional work, employees should ask their managers to clarify which tasks are most important, which are nice-to-haves, and which are fully optional.
2. Engage in citizenship crafting.
Going the extra mile doesn’t have to mean yes to every special request — and in fact, it probably shouldn’t. Instead of feeling pressured to take on whatever extra work your boss throws your way, employees should engage in what’s called “citizenship crafting”: proactively finding ways to go beyond the call of duty that matches your personal interests, strengths, and needs. For employees balancing work with family duties, that means finding ways to grow your career and support your organization that will not create excessive problems at home.
For instance, if entertaining a client after hours interferes with your partner’s dinner plans, consider volunteering to help onboard a new colleague or help with an extra project during regular working hours instead. Setting healthy boundaries and taking an active approach to growing your career on your own terms can help you achieve your professional goals in a manner that’s consistent with both your needs and the needs of those most important to you.
3. Recognize the power of communication.
You might think that taking on extra work is bound to upset your partner — but our research illustrates that how you communicate can have a major impact on how they react. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a great communicator, just using the right strategy can make a big difference. Specifically, to reduce the chances of conflict, try to avoid focusing on prior discussions, and instead do your best to provide early notice and frame the conversation around seeking permission to take on the extra work duties (rather than simply informing your partner).
To be sure, no one should feel like they have to ask their partner’s permission to grow their career. And in fact, our study demonstrated that requesting permission correlates with taking on less extra work — so for employees who are prioritizing career growth, this approach may not be optimal. However, when it comes to mitigating conflict, communication strategies that demonstrate your respect and appreciation for your partner (who may be taking on additional home or childcare duties as a result of your decision to pursue additional work) can make a big difference.
4. Align your communication strategy with your goals.
We all go through phases in which we are more focused on our personal or professional lives. The key is to adapt our behavior to fit our current goals. When your career is your top priority, it may make sense to use communication strategies that maximize your chances of taking on extra work (potentially at the cost of sowing some discontent at home): Emphasize the payoffs associated with going the extra mile, or invoke prior conversations with your partner. Conversely, if you’re most concerned with keeping your partner happy, it may make more sense to focus on seeking permission and providing early notice (though the former may result in you taking on less additional work in the office). And if you’re trying to balance both work and home life, our studies found that providing early notice helped improve partner satisfaction but had no impact on whether people ended up taking on extra tasks — so this approach may come closest to balancing the two goals . Ultimately, success is relative: Strategies that facilitate success at work may be less successful at home — and vice versa — so it’s important to determine what’s important to you, and choose the best communication strategy accordingly.
There’s no way around it: Being a good citizen at work can sometimes come at a cost for both employees and their partners. However, how you communicate with your partner when such situations arise can have important implications for both the work-family conflict you experience and your partner’s satisfaction, as well as for the likelihood that you’ll end up actually taking on the extra work. So next time you are called upon to go beyond the call of duty at work, take a moment to clarify your organization’s needs, look for creative ways to support your employer without causing problems at home, and before breaking the news to your partner, take a moment to choose the best communication strategy to match your unique context and goals.