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  • Writer's pictureScott Behson

How to Cope with Work-Family Conflict and Stress (part 1)

Part 1 of a Series- Problem Focused Coping

In this series of articles, I’ll look at research and best practices to provide some advice on how to better handle the stress that comes with juggling work-family conflict.

Ever feel like this because of work-family conflict? Maybe problem-focused coping can help.

Ever feel like this because of work-family conflict? Maybe problem-focused coping can help.

You promised your family you’d get home early to get to the school recital. But your boss just pushed back the department meeting to the end of the day. You can’t be in two places at once. What do you do? (we’ll get to that)How do you feel? STRESSED

Stress occurs when the demands you face (promise made to family vs. work demands) seem to exceed your capacity for handling them (Can you miss the meeting without consequences? How will your family react?).

Obviously, work-family conflict can result in significant levels of stress, as the demands of our two most important and demanding adult roles (family and work) compete for a finite resource, time, as well as an only-slowly-renewable resource, our mental and emotional energy.

The pioneering work of Lazarus and his colleagues in the 1970s and 1980s led to the identification of general approaches to how people react to stress: Problem-Focused Coping and Emotion-Focused Coping.

They developed a questionnaire and found that those who generally approach stressful situations with a problem-focused coping approach felt less stress and those who used emotion-focused coping failed to escape or relieve stress.

Problem-focused coping involves taking active steps to change the situation that is causing stress, including proactively seeking out information, changing one’s behavior, or attempting to change the environment. We still experience work-family pressures, but MAY be able change the situation, resulting in solved problems and less stress. Some problem-focused coping behaviors include:

  1. I tried to analyze the problem to understand it better

  2. I made a plan of action and followed it

  3. I thought about how a person I admire would handle this situation and used that as a model

  4. I went over in my mind what I would say or do

  5. Came up with a couple of different solutions to the problem

  6. Talked to someone who could do something concrete about the problem

  7. Tried to get the person responsible to change his or her mind

  8. I asked a relative or friend I respected for advice

  9. Stood my ground and fought for what I wanted

  10. Bargained or compromised to get something positive from the situation

In the example above, problem-focused coping may mean talking to your boss asking him to reschedule, arranging to call into the meeting on your bluetooth while driving home, asking for help from your mentor, or telling coworkers you feel a migraine coming on and you may have to go home soon. Maybe it means planning way ahead and negotiating for work flexibility. (Part 2 of this series will focus on a set of problem-focused coping behaviors specific to work-family conflict)

Some tactics may work, some may not, but at least you are doing something to try to change your situation.

Emotion-Focused Coping is seen as far less effective, as instead of trying to actively change the situation causing the stress, it simply focuses on how to deal with or re-interpret the stress you feel.  So, emotion-focused coping helps us deal with stress, but does nothing to try to prevent it. Examples of emotion-focused coping behaviors include reframing, denial and wishful thinking. Some examples:

  1. Didn’t let it get to me; refused to think too much about it

  2. Tried to forget the whole thing. Wished that I could change what had happened or how I felt

  3. I daydreamed or imagined a better time or place than the one I was in

  4. Wished that the situation would go away or somehow be over with

  5. Went along with fate; sometimes I just have bad luck

  6. Went on as if nothing had happened

  7. I tried to keep my feelings to myself

  8. Looked for the silver lining, so to speak; tried to look on the bright side of  things

  9. Made light of the situation; refused to get too serious about it

  10. I reminded myself how much worse things could be

I suppose that when problem-focused coping fails to work or if the situation cannot be changed, emotion-focused coping could be used to look at the bright side. Otherwise, there’s a whole lot of denial and stinking thinking going on here.

My advice- Be proactive and try to change the situations that cause us stress. Maybe it works! Maybe it doesn’t- at least we’ve tried. Using problem-focused coping may help.

So, how have you been proactive in dealing with work-family conflict and stress? What has worked (or not worked) for you? Let’s discuss in the comments section.


  1. Behson, S.J. (2002). Coping with Family to Work Conflict: The Role of Informal Work Accommodations to Family. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 7(4), 324-341.

  2. Folkman, S., Lazarus, R. S., Dunkel-Schetter, C., DeLongis, A., & Gruen, R. (1986). The dynamics of a stressful encounter: Cognitive appraisal, coping and encounter outcomes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 992-1003.

Upcoming articles in this series: Informal Work Accommodations to Family, Time Management Techniques, Reader Advice

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