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A Study of work-family conflict in Sri Lanka: Negotiations of exchange relationships in family and at work. (forthcoming)
Journal of Social Issues (2012)
  • P. Kailasapathy
  • Isabel Metz, Melbourne Business School

With the increase in dual-earner couples, conflict and balance between family and work lives have become important issues for families and organizations. Manageable work-family conflict allows individuals to combine work and care. An individual’s relationship with important others, such as a partner/spouse, is argued to be essential for understanding work-family conflict. The relationship with the supervisor can also be an important factor in this understanding. Further, most work-family conflict research has been conducted in Western cultures. However, due to globalization and workforce mobility there is a growing need to understand work-family conflict in non-Western cultures.

Therefore, this study’s aim is to understand how individuals who are part of dual-earner couples experience and deal with work-family conflict in Sri Lanka. Twenty-five interviews were conducted to identify if and how couples negotiated within their marital relationships, and between themselves and their supervisors, to reduce or cope with work-family conflict. The interviews show that the majority of the individuals in this sample engaged in formal or informal negotiation of the exchange relationships at home and at work to alleviate family- or work-derived conflict. Whether at home or at work, it was the individual who experienced the inequality in the exchange relationship who was likely to initiate the negotiation. As a result, negotiations at home were more likely to be initiated by the women than the men, and negotiations at work were initiated by the interviewees rather than by their supervisors.

Further, the interviews indicated that negotiations with one’s spouse and supervisor were about contributions. Negotiations regarding other aspects of the social exchange such as trust, respect, and affect were not reported. By “contribution” we mean, for instance, the perception of the current level of household-oriented activity each partner puts forth towards the (explicit or implicit) mutual goals of the family.

In addition, the interviews revealed an influence of spouse’s gender role ideology on the success of the negotiation at home. Although negotiations with spouses had predominantly positive effects for this sample of dual-earner Sri Lankan couples, when husbands believed in a traditional gender role ideology, the wives were not successful in negotiating at home.

Further, despite the Eastern cultural values of high power distance, individuals’ negotiations with their supervisors yielded positive outcomes. Hence, we have one recommendation for individuals and another for supervisors. Individuals living in Eastern countries, such as Sri Lanka, are encouraged to initiate negotiations with their supervisors when they feel it is possible to obtain favorable outcomes. Such negotiations involve, for example, the implementation of family-friendly programs, such as flexible work practices (e.g., compressed work week, flexi-hours) and control over work hours. In contrast to many Western countries, such family-friendly policies and practices are not officially offered by many Sri Lankan organizations. Therefore, we encourage supervisors to be supportive of their employees by being open to suggestions that minimize work-family conflict.

Two additional cultural characteristics emerged from the interviews. First, dual-earner couples in Sri Lanka rely heavily on their parents and/or in-laws for help with household and child care responsibilities. This family-based arrangement is not found in most Western countries, and yet it helps dual-earner couples, especially the women, reduce or cope with their work-family conflict. Second, dual-earner couples in Sri Lanka might be embracing a combination of Eastern and Western values that help them cope with work-family conflict. For example, possibly as a result of high education and urban living, most of the Sri Lankan individuals in dual-earner couple situations exhibit less traditional gender ideologies than what would be expected in an Eastern society. Yet, they still use the typically Oriental extended social network of parents/family to assist them in taking care of children.

Publication Date
Citation Information
P. Kailasapathy and Isabel Metz. "A Study of work-family conflict in Sri Lanka: Negotiations of exchange relationships in family and at work. (forthcoming)" Journal of Social Issues (2012)
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