If Your Spouse’s Work Life is Stressful, Design a Healthier Home Life
Harvard Business Review, Michelle Gielan

January 9, 2018

Watching someone suffer from stress and burnout — and feeling powerless to help — is an awful experience. But it’s a reality for many married professionals who see their spouses staggering under the weight of constant demands from the office. In our work with professionals at many of the Fortune 100 companies, the question “How can I help my partner de-stress?” has become more common than ever.

It’s an experience I can absolutely relate to, as I recently went through it with my husband, Shawn Achor. We are a married pair of happiness researchers (we are not happy all the time — that’s a disorder!), and we run a business and home together. Last spring, Shawn was pulling triple duty: finishing up the manuscript to his new book, regularly speaking at companies, and being an engaged and wonderful father to our three-year-old son. It was a lot. And of course, he slowly began getting increasingly stressed. He felt like he never had enough time to do anything, including going to the gym and seeing his friends. As his wife, I tried everything to help: comforting him, encouraging guys’ nights and gym time, and handling bedtime with our son for weeks on end to give him a break. While those things were short-term Band-Aids, it made me start to question what long-term, sustainable solutions we could implement to keep stress in check for both of us.

We’re finding that the answer to helping our loved ones deal with work stress surprisingly comes from the very place that is causing the stress itself: work. Specifically, the problem in our current system is not merely that there is too much of a demand on professionals to do more with less at all hours; it’s that we’re failing to create a strong enough protective culture at home. But by deeply understanding how companies lay the groundwork for positive cultures, we can create our own positive culture after-hours. By collectively focusing on strengthening a family culture, we give our brains and bodies a chance to relax and recover.

We’ve seen the well-being and business benefits at our clients when the company is intentional about creating and fueling a positive culture at work. For example, UnitedHealth Group created a volunteer army of 6,000 culture ambassadors who help promote positive practices at the organization, including getting to know one’s own strengths and using them regularly, leading to greater work satisfaction. At a large national insurance company, the president credits a morning huddle meeting, where people can share wins and offer support to colleagues, with helping to increase gross revenues by more than $300 million in 18 months. But you don’t need formal programs and big initiatives to impact culture. Giving a team member a handwritten note of praise, or a coffee gift card as thanks, can go a long way toward sparking increased engagement and team cohesiveness.

As you can imagine, the topic of positive cultures is not only professionally interesting to us, as happiness researchers, but also personally important. We have both brought stress home from the office and very lovingly inflicted it on the other. While we are still a work in progress, here is what we learned from our consulting to help set up and maintain a positive environment at home:

Get the stakeholders together. Intention is the key to success, and culture starts with a discussion of family values when it comes to stress and peace. Bring together everyone in the family for a discussion of the type of environment you want to create. By identifying your values and setting your collective plan, you begin to live a life that follows it. The cornerstone to the discussion is how you’ll work together to set up an environment that supports relaxing and recharging. From our stakeholders meeting, we decided: no more work talk after 5 PM or on weekends, among other things.

Use visual reminders. Ahead of a talk I gave to senior leaders at Kimball International, I had the organization’s mission statement and values top of mind, because they are posted at the door of the building. You can use a similar visual reminder of culture at home to refocus family members as they come home after a long day. Family pictures, a list of values, and loving messages can act as a physical reset button. We filled a bulletin board full of happy family pictures from times that made us feel rejuvenated and alive.

Bag up tech. Social connection is the greatest predictor of long-term happiness, but we can’t create that with phones in our faces. A study published in the Psychology of Popular Media Culture found that of the women surveyed who were in a romantic relationship, 25% said their loved one sent text messages or emails to other people while they were having a face-to-face conversation. We’ve experimented with zipping up our phones in a baggie as a reminder that it’s a phone-free time, so we don’t absentmindedly use it, and that simple barrier was very effective at getting us realigned with our new resolution.

Be a model. Your behavior speaks volumes to your partner and children. While shutting out work can sometimes feel impossible due to a demanding boss, research shows that taking a break improves productivity and mental clarity. From when you arrive home until after dinner, set aside sacred time to recharge and reconnect. And if you don’t feel justified doing this for yourself, what better motivation than to do it for your family? Modeling a healthy relationship with work is one of the best gifts you can give your kids. Not only will they adopt that approach during their adult years (hopefully), but they’ll also enjoy your mindful attention during their precious years as kids.

Get some happy sleep. Research shows that more sleep leads to more positive memories. In a study where people were asked to memorize two list of words, one positive and one negative, those who’d had five hours of sleep the night before remembered the same number of negative words (about 80%) but significantly fewer positive words than those who got eight hours of sleep. Cement positive memories with your spouse by getting to bed earlier, together. Brushing your teeth in plain sight or turning off the lights in the bedroom are great ways to gently remind your loved one that the day is over.

From sharing gratitude around the dinner table to ending screen time in the early evening, these small habits build culture and often make a huge difference in happiness for the entire family. For us, taking these simple actions has reenergized our home life and made us feel less stressed and more productive at work to boot.