Mothers and Employment: Role Strain, Psychological Well-Being and Careers.

  • Karina Bradley

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Over recent decades, there have been dramatic structural and demographic changes to work and family roles in industrialised countries, with a significant increase in maternal employment levels. Given that women today are having children later than in previous generations (ABS, 2006c) many women are committed to and are often well established in their chosen career path when they start a family. The aim of the current programme of research was to link the work-family interface and career development literature, by exploring the relationship between psychological health and factors related to the career development of mothers in paid employment. This area of research has been a largely neglected area of study.

The first study examined role strain and psychological well-being of mothers in
paid employment in relation to their career commitment. Role strain occurs in individuals as a result of a perceived difficulty in meeting multiple role demands (Duxbury & Higgins, 1994; Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985; Small & Riley, 1990). Role strain was measured using four individual variables: role overload, work-to-family interference, family-to-work interference and internal role conflict. Psychological well-being was assessed using three individual variables: psychological distress, perceived stress and coping, and global life satisfaction. Career commitment was operationalised as the psychological attachment to a specific career/vocation and ambition for advancement to a higher level (Arnold, 1990; Aryee & Tan, 1992; Balshaw & Grant, 1994).

The second broader study examined career-related variables other than career
commitment and the relation to psychological health (role strain and psychological well-being). These other career-related variables were career stage, career withdrawal intentions, career satisfaction, expected utility of one’s present job, career priority, supervisor support for career and perceived work schedule flexibility. A focus of the second study was the career-related variable of career stage.

Thus, two research questions linking role strain, psychological well-being and
career-related variables for mothers in paid employment guided the overall research, the first emphasising psychological health and career commitment and the second examining psychological health and other career-related variables.

In order to address these two questions, 407 mothers in paid employment, with
children aged six years and younger completed surveys. They came from a total of 84 Gold Coast childcare centres.

The findings of the first study provided support for the importance of the career
commitment construct for mothers in paid employment. Contrary to expectations, mothers categorised with higher levels of career commitment reported experiencing higher overall psychological well-being and lower role strain than mothers categorised with lower levels of career commitment. Lower levels of role strain, particularly role overload and internal role conflict were also found to predict a reduction in overall psychological well-being. Career commitment did not contribute to the prediction of overall psychological well-being. In relation to these findings, support was found for the role strain theory (Goode, 1960; 1974) and partially for social identity theory (Ashforth & Mael, 1989; Prone et ah, 1995, 2002; Noor, 2004).

In the second study, the correlations between career-related variables, role strain (and its subscales) and psychological well-being (and its subscales) were mixed, with all significant correlations considered to be low. Role strain was found to be higher in the initial career stage of exploration (under two years career tenure) than in the later career stages. Levels of psychological well-being were not significantly different across career stages. Results of the hierarchical regression analysis indicated that career satisfaction and perceived work schedule flexibility improved role strain’s prediction of overall psychological well-being, so that higher levels of career satisfaction and perceived work
schedule flexibility and lower levels of role strain predicted higher levels of overall psychological well-being.

The role of career-related variables in the psychological health of mothers in paid employment requires further investigation. The findings in this study have indicated that although social identity theory and the role strain theories continue to offer valuable insights into the experiences attached to multiple role involvement, the consideration of more comprehensive work-family interface models acknowledging career developmental issues applicable to women are necessary.

As there is the recognition of employees as a valuable resource (Pfeffer, 1994)
and an acknowledgement of the impact that role strain and psychological well-being can have on individuals, Australian organisations should make a concerted effort to assist parents in managing work and family demands, in order to maximise performance (Tompson & Wemer, 1997) and also to minimise role strain and maximise psychological well-being for workers via the establishment and encouragement of flexible work practices (Bedeian et ah, 1988; Parasuraman, Greenhaus & Granrose, 1992; Rice, Prone & Me Farlin, 1992; Sekaran, 1983; Thomas & Ganster, 1995; Williams & Alliger, 1994). Given the current research findings that firstly, higher levels of role strain were reported by mothers at earlier career stages and secondly, lower levels of psychological well-being and higher levels of role strain were reported by mothers at mothers categorised with lower levels of career commitment, the implementation of programmes (work-family balance) and strategies should be aimed at employees at all hierarchical organisational echelons.

The present research has highlighted some important findings on the effects that multiple role involvement have on women’s psychological health and women’s career development. An important finding from the current research is the significance for mothers in paid employment, of having satisfying careers and access to work schedule flexibility in order to assist in balancing their work and family life. More research is still needed in the work-family interface on just how multiple roles can be managed effectively.
Date of Award3 Feb 2007
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorRichard Hicks (Supervisor)

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