Is your work ethic rooted in the quality of the relationship you had with your parents?

Cheerful teenage boy works on robotics project with his dad
“The influence of the father … tended to be more important than the influence of the mother”

By Christian Jarrett

Some of us work to live, others live to work – these toilers see hard graft as virtuous and they’re more than happy to go the extra mile to climb the career ladder and serve their employer. Organisations, understandably, are interested in hiring people with this kind of work ethic and so psychologists are trying to find out where it comes from.

It’s already known that children with harder working parents also tend to have a stronger work ethic. But a new study in the Journal of General Psychology is one of the first to investigate whether our relationship with our parents in the past – when we were teenagers – is related to our attitude and approach to work as adults. Monique Leenders at the University of Groningen and her colleagues found some small but statistically significant correlations, in particular men’s approach to work seemed to be related to the quality of the teenage relationship they had with their fathers.

The researchers surveyed nearly 4,000 people in the Netherlands, including 1526 men with an average age of 47 and 2291 women with an average age of 44. The participants answered items tapping the quality of the relationship they had with mother and with their father when they were in their teens, such as rating their agreement with “My mother [father] and I were very close” and “I always felt that my father [mother] supported me”. They also said whether they agreed with statements regarding their approach to work, such as “I’d rather work overtime than fail to get something done on time”, and their work ethic, such as “I feel happiest after I’ve worked hard”.

Overall, there was a small but statistically significant correlation between the quality of the participants’ teen relationships with their parents and their current work attitude and work ethic. Digging deeper into the stats separately for men and women, the researchers found that the male and female participants’ teen relationship with their fathers, but not their mothers, was correlated with their current approach to work. Meanwhile, men’s work ethic was correlated with their past relationship quality with their mothers and fathers, but women’s work ethic was not.

“These findings suggest that parents influence work values differently and that the relationship with the father is more central to the development of children’s work values than the relationship with the mother,” Leenders and her team said, adding that this may be because historically it is fathers who more often have jobs outside of the home and may therefore “serve as important role models and have more impact on their children than mothers in the work arena.”

The researchers said their study was just a “first step” and they acknowledged they haven’t proved any causal influence of parental relations on work attitudes. Nonetheless, they said that careers counsellors might help employees not only by discussing their current issues at work, but also by considering the possible influence of their past family relationships.

Another major complication in interpreting research of this kind, not mentioned by the researchers, is the role of genetic effects. Although it’s tempting to speculate about parental role modelling, any apparent transmission of work ethic from one generation to the next is in large part likely to be related to the inheritance of genes associated with trait Conscientiousness.

The Role of the Relationship with Parents with Respect to Work Orientation and Work Ethic

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Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest