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How dual-career couples find fulfillment at work

When both you and your partner have demanding jobs, it’s challenging to strike the right work–life balance. Can companies help dual-career couples juggle it all?

The struggle to balance two demanding careers is a dilemma that many employees face daily. Our recent study of more than 35,000 workers with spouses or live-in partners in a variety of professional sectors found that 89 percent of women and 70 percent of men are part of a dual-career couple (DCC)—a couple in which both partners have jobs. These couples come from all racial and ethnic groups and from all income levels.

Of course, many employees in DCCs have no choice but to work. But for some couples, both partners work by choice, and career fulfillment is a top priority for them. These employees often struggle to find such fulfillment because the demands of balancing home and each partner’s work can be overwhelming and sometimes even create conflicting priorities. Companies can do more to help these employees in DCCs thrive at work and at home.

Does job satisfaction suffer?

The tug of war between work and home may be undermining the ability of employees in DCCs to find satisfaction in their jobs. In a McKinsey survey, employees in DCCs are less likely to report being “happy” with their jobs than are their peers in single-career couples (SCCs) (Exhibit 1).

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Perhaps the juggling act is simply too stressful, or perhaps employees in DCCs lack the time to search for something better when they are unhappy in their current positions. These challenges may even be contributing factors to the lack of women in the C-suite, where only one in five executives is female, the same survey found.

Perseverance pays off

Our research suggests that employees in DCCs who persevere through the challenges in the middle of their careers find satisfaction in the end. Their happiness with their jobs increases as they advance through the ranks to senior levels, while the happiness levels of employees in SCCs mostly stay the same. Some of this rise in happiness may stem from the fact that the children of employees in DCCs—if these couples are also parents—are leaving the nest, so the family is less stretched for time and resources.

Those earlier years, however, can be quite harried for employees in DCCs, especially when children are part of the mix. But if these couples can find jobs they love that offer them enough flexibility and support to power through the “rush hour” years, they are likely to come out successful and happy on the other side—and to remain loyal to their employers.

How companies can provide support

To foster the success of employees in DCCs, companies should make sure that these employees enjoy access to opportunities for professional development and career advancement, support for maintaining work–life balance, and sponsorship opportunities. Specifically, companies can take the following actions:

  • Provide supportive managers and ensure equitable growth opportunities, especially for lower-level workers. Overall, employees in DCCs are more likely than those in SCCs to have managers who help them balance work and personal demands, develop new skills, and identify opportunities for growth and development. The majority of employees in DCCs and SCCs, however, do not report having managers who possess these attributes. Fortunately, this situation seems to improve as workers advance through the ranks.

    Employees in DCCs who are struggling to balance work and life may also feel their managers’ lack of support more acutely than employees in SCCs do. This, along with their sense that they lack equal access to such opportunities, may be driving down the overall job satisfaction in employees in DCCs. Ensuring that these workers enjoy opportunities equal to those of their SCC peers—in ways that are feasible for their busy lives—could boost job satisfaction among employees in DCCs and ultimately encourage these workers to stay with their employers for the long haul.

  • Encourage ambition by making top positions seem feasible. In general, employees in DCCs are ambitious in their careers, even more so than their peers in SCCs. In particular, women in DCCs are substantially more ambitious in their careers than women in SCCs are—by a gap of 16 percentage points. Women in DCCs are also more eager than their female peers in SCCs to become top executives. Still, only a minority of employees in DCCs want to attain this goal, and fewer women than men in DCCs aspire to it. The reason may be simple: many workers in DCCs believe that top-executive responsibilities might come at a cost too high for their families (Exhibit 2).

    Workers in DCCs tend to progress steadily through the ranks but often view top-executive responsibilities as potentially inflexible and daunting. If companies can openly offer flexible schedules—even to those at the highest ranks—and other top-level support for work–life balance, these workers might be more eager to reach their companies’ top ranks.

    Additionally, companies can do more to base promotions and top-executive-hiring decisions on output rather than input to ensure equity for employees in DCCs. Too many companies mistake quantity (as in the number of hours an employee spends on the job) for quality (reflected in the employee’s output).

    Employers also need to consider that some of the employees in these couples may be accelerating and decelerating their careers at different times to allow their partners’ careers to ramp up or down. In doing so, they may have veered off the top-executive track or have traded advancement for needed flexibility. It is helpful when companies give these valuable employees a variety of flexible job options that allow them to succeed both at home and at work.

  • Create a culture that encourages work–life balance. Employees in DCCs are more likely than their peers in SCCs to have managers who help them balance work with personal demands. Parents in DCCs are especially likely to receive such support. But fewer than half of workers in couples—whether SCC or DCC—say that they have such support from their managers.

    Leaders and managers should receive coaching on speaking directly to employees about how they navigate their own challenges in balancing work and life responsibilities to encourage employees in DCCs to strive for top positions. They should also be open to offering flexible work schedules to employees in DCCs and to evaluating these workers’ performance based on output rather than input.

    McKinsey research has shown that employees are often reluctant to ask for flexible schedules for fear of hindering their advancement. To derisk flexible-working policies, companies should encourage leaders to signal their acceptance and usage of the policies. They should also foster open dialogues about how to improve policies to accommodate employees’ and their families’ needs better.

  • Ensure consistent access to sustainable sponsorship. Having a sponsor who is an advocate and mentor can play a major role in career success, but most employees do not have sponsors. Of all workers at all career levels, senior-level women in DCCs are most likely to have sponsors, but even in this group, only about a quarter have one or more sponsors.

    Sponsorship opportunities need to be made available more widely, at all levels of employment. It would be particularly helpful if lower-level employees had senior-level sponsors in DCCs who could demonstrate how to succeed while juggling home and work responsibilities.

    Sponsorships also need to be sustainable. For employees in DCCs and SCCs, sponsorship rates decrease with age. This decline is especially unfortunate for women in those groups, because McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace research has found that women often cite sponsorship as a key contributor to their success.

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Benefits of support

Employment policies and a company culture that support employees in DCCs help not only workers but also employers. Flexible schedules, support for work–life balance, access to mentorship, and other pro-DCC measures end up benefiting the bottom line and the company overall. Flexible schedules are particularly advantageous, as they encourage teamwork, allow employers to draw from a wider talent pool, and help ensure business continuity. Employees tend to be more loyal when they have a flexible schedule, too, resulting in lower turnover and hiring costs.

Maintaining a workplace that supports employees in DCCs helps ensure and promote continued diversity in the workplace. It is also a business imperative: to recruit and retain the best talent, businesses need to make their workplaces welcoming for employees in DCCs. Our research has shown that having diversity among employees and leaders generates above-average financial returns for companies of all sizes and sectors.

Ultimately, employees are more satisfied when their employers demonstrate a clear commitment to supporting workers in DCCs and their families. And as every employer knows, a satisfied workforce is an invaluable asset to any business.

Download Making it work: How dual-career couples find career fulfillment, the full report on which this article is based (PDF–5MB).

About the author(s)

Asilah Azil is a consultant in McKinsey’s Singapore office; Billy Bennett is a consultant in the San Francisco office, where Marie-Claude Nadeau is a partner; and Jill Zucker is a senior partner in the New York office.

The authors wish to thank Liz Hilton Segel and Tijana Trkulja for their contributions to this article.

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