Emotional Contagion: What Is the ‘Spillover Effect’? (Part 1)

Spillover (noun) 1.) The act or an instance of spilling over; 2.) A quantity that spills over; 3.) An extension of something, especially when an excess exists.—Merriam-Webster Dictionary

As humans, we do our best to bifurcate our lives—meaning, one section or quadrant of life (e.g., work/professional life) exists in its own space, while family/home life lives in its own space, and the two are (preferably) as separate as possible. Neat and tidy, right?

But for as much as you may try to “not take work home with you“—or keep it relegated to your home office, separate from personal/family time—the fact remains that life’s boundaries are far more permeable, and even a little messier, than we often prefer to acknowledge.

Add to the mix today’s hybrid work-from-home/in-office work hours, and/or ANY of the all-under-one-roof work-from-home/home-school policies of the past few pandemic years, and it’s easy to see how it’s all but impossible to fully separate our professional and personal spaces.

Which is exactly where the spillover effect comes into play. (Ready to roll up those sleeves?)

For my doctoral dissertation in Organizational Change and Leadership at USC, I spent a better part of three and a half years immersed in academic research studying the spillover effect among high-achieving entrepreneurs and executives, born from the consistent patterns I saw in the nearly 15 years of clinical psychotherapy cases I’d worked with in my office.

What I observed again and again is that when things aren’t going well from a relationship standpoint, many individuals try to “compartmentalize” their troubles and put more energy into work, where they feel more successful and capable. Good for their careers, right? Wrong. It works—until the stressor hits a threshold and it all begins to fall apart, including their ability to focus and perform at work.

Real-World Examples of the Spillover Effect

—If you feel like your marriage is about to fall apart, of course that experience begins to impact your professional performance on some level. You may be present but your mind is elsewhere; it makes it hard to show up in a way that’s supportive to the team (which will pick up on the fact that you’re checked out/distant).

—Business productivity may suffer in other ways: budgets get held up, hiring freezes result, funding ebbs; you may feel like you’re experiencing brain fog or symptoms of depression.

—In the end, the spillover effect wins: You can only compartmentalize for so long as a coping strategy; it works to a degree, but the unaddressed needs at home ultimately only amplify your marriage/home issues.

I often work with married couples or families in business together, and the crux of these scenarios often distills down to the spillover effect (which is also referred to as emotional contagion or crossover) between personal and professional domains. When someone’s emotional/psychological headspace is already depleted, because of challenges at home or another sector, they won’t be on their A-game at work for high-stress, high-level responsibilities and decision making.

The Spillover Effect Isn’t All Negative

There are plenty of instances when the spillover effect has a net positive impact on your work/professional life, and vice versa.

—When you’re going through a highly psychologically emotional and taxing time at work—say, your company is in the process of trying to raise funds for a new business, uncertainty is high, you’re worried about funding for your employees, paying back investors, etc.—the best case scenario is your home life, your relationship, is very stable and supportive, serving as a critically-important support network. (The spillover effect working for good.)

—The day-to-day emotional support of a spouse or partner at home (who may take on more of the work load at home, is understanding of the long hours, etc.) is critical to business success. When your environment across your home and life is optimized and supportive, the result of that positive spillover effect means you can show up at work and perform to your own optimal level, despite the stressors.

Work and family domains are often bifurcated in literature review, but organizational research—also supported by my dissertation findings—have increasingly studied the antecedents of work-family life spillover, as well as causes and effects.

Overarchingly, a spouse who feels like their partner emotionally supports them—through behaviors including bonding time, taking on share of household duties, and child-rearing—helps them feel appreciated and feel like a priority, leading to marital satisfaction. Their marital satisfaction leads to overall life satisfaction and frees individuals to focus energy on performing well at work.

So, do you still think you can just compartmentalize away your problems? Stay tuned!

In a few weeks, I’ll dive deeper into findings about the spillover effect from my dissertation—along with takeaways for building a more harmonious and more satisfying work-home life.

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