The University of Colorado study found that ignoring the stresses of an unemployed spouse's job search does not bode well for the employed spouse's job productivity or home life.
In the study, published in the the Journal of Applied Psychology, the researchers examined daily stresses felt by married couples in which one spouse was employed and the other unemployed, and how that stress affected each spouse.
"One of the key findings in this study is that couples are better at sharing their burden than helping alleviate it," said Maw-Der Foo, an associate professor at CU-Boulder's Leeds School of Business, who co-authored the study.
"If you feel bad at home there is going to be spillover at work where you will also feel lousy. Going into the study we thought that marital support might help alleviate the stress of unemployment on the family unit, but it didn't turn out to be the case."
One of the take-home messages from the study, Foo said, is that employers need to be more supportive when their employees have family members -- particularly a spouse -- who are unemployed.
"Organisations can implement family-friendly policies to help their employees fulfil their family roles, which in turn may increase the employee's productivity," he said.
"Our findings call for more attention on the family as an integrated system in responding to the unemployment situation."
For the study, the researchers looked at a group of married couples in Shenyang, China. As part of the study, the participants had to give a daily report of their distresses.
The researchers examined the interaction between the work life and family life of both the spouses. Since they had responses from both employed and unemployed people, they were able to compare them and draw conclusions.
"For example, the spouse experiencing job stress may reduce his or her marital support to their spouse, which then leads to more stress for the unemployed spouse, who then returns the favour and adds even more stress," Foo said.
The researchers also looked at what is called the crossover effect, which refers to a situation when each spouse transmits and catches the stresses of the other.
"We looked at the unemployed person's activities and their distress, but we also looked at the work experience of the employed person and how that also spills over to the family relationship," Foo said.
More closely examining the stress and coping mechanisms among couples facing the problem of unemployment also may provide some practical insights to family counsellors, psychotherapists who develop family-focused interventions to prevent the breakdown of relationships, he said.