A survey of more than 8,500 Army spouses examining their problem-solving processes found that the most common problems involved work-life balance, military practices and culture, and spouses' own well-being.
Spouses most often wanted social support for their problems and commonly reached out to their social networks for help, including to other military spouses.
Most spouses who used resources to help with their needs had their needs met. However, 22 percent of all spouses had one or more unmet need, which was associated with higher levels of stress and worse attitudes toward the military.
Vulnerable groups included those unemployed and looking for work.
Army families must face all the challenges that other families face — as well as those related to military service, such as those that come from permanent change of station (PCS) moves that require families to relocate every few years. Also, each of these aspects of Army life can create new problems (e.g., spouses having to find a new job with each PCS move) or exacerbate existing problems (e.g., adding stress to fragile marital relationships). The Army has recognized these unique military service challenges and implemented programs and services to help Army families — and Army spouses in particular — cope with them.
The Army uses surveys to gauge Army family members' satisfaction with such programs and services, but these surveys do not address the problems and associated needs that led individuals to seek out the programs in the first place or ask whether the programs or some other resources helped them resolve their problems.
This brief summarizes research that takes a different approach to understanding the use of programs and services by using a model of help-seeking and problem resolution to examine the match between the resources available and challenges faced by Army spouses.
Applying the Model of Help-Seeking and Problem Resolution
This model, which is shown in the figure, was put forward as an alternative approach to understanding program use through the lens of the problem-solving process — the most pressing problems that spouses and their families experienced in the past year (if any), the types of help they needed to deal with those problems, the resources they contacted to try to meet those needs, and whether those resources helped them resolve their problems.
RAND researchers applied the model using a survey completed by more than 8,500 Army spouses. On the survey, the Army spouses received a list of specific challenges experienced within nine problem domains:
military practices and culture (e.g., adjusting to military language, organization, or culture; getting your spouse's chain of command to take you seriously)
work-life balance (e.g., finding time for sleep, healthy diet, and physical exercise; work not being challenging or not using your skills or education)
financial or legal problems (e.g., trouble servicing debt or paying bills; finding a job that pays enough or offers enough hours)
health care system problems (e.g., difficulty finding a physician who takes TRICARE)
relationship problems (e.g., trouble reuniting or reconnecting after a deployment)
child well-being (e.g., lack of affordable or quality military child care)
own well-being (e.g., feeling stressed, overwhelmed, or tired)
soldier's well-being (same issues as "own well-being," but with the soldier as the frame of reference).
Respondents could choose between 8 and 14 specific issues that they had experienced in the past year within each problem domain, for a total of up to 96 listed specific issues. If respondents chose issues from more than two domains, they were asked to prioritize which two problem domains contained "the most significant problems" they had faced in the past 12 months.
For each of their top two problems, the respondent was asked to indicate what types of help — needs, if any — they required to deal with the specific problems in that domain. Needs included, for example, social or emotional support, general or specific information, or an advocate. If respondents chose more than two needs for a problem, they were asked to prioritize two types of needs.
For the top two needs identified by respondents, they were asked to indicate which resources, if any, they had "used or tried to use to meet [the] need." This included military resources — e.g., the spouse's chain of command (squad leaders, noncommissioned officers, or officers) or the Army Family Readiness Group (FRG) — and nonmilitary resources — e.g., other military spouses or internet resources (such as WebMD or Google). All participants were also asked more-general questions about their perceptions of military resources and barriers to using them.
Finally, respondents were asked about three specific outcomes — perceived stress, general attitudes toward the Army, and support for the soldier spouse remaining in the Army.
In analyzing the results in terms of the problem-solving process, respondents were separated out by a number of characteristics: their employment status, whether the families had dependent children, housing location (distance from the military installation where the soldier was posted and urbanicity), and the soldier's service characteristics (pay grade and whether the soldier was deployed in the past year).
What the Authors Found Using the Problem-Solving Process
The table highlights both the general findings from using the process and those specific to the characteristics examined.
Based on the findings in the table, the authors recommend that the Army take the following actions:
Consider ways to boost the effectiveness of Army FRGs and to increase participation in FRGs, especially for spouses of junior enlisted soldiers and those who live far from their soldier's military post. Army FRGs are intended to provide support for spouses, particularly during deployments, but survey results suggest that FRGs are not well used for obtaining help with problems; as such, the resource may need a reboot.
Explore outreach to spouses by systematically collecting and/or providing email addresses for spouses to tackle the general lack of program awareness. Doing so would facilitate low-cost email communication with spouses and allow for targeted outreach for installation-specific events or resources (e.g., FRG meetings).
Consider implementing a "no wrong door" policy to help spouses find the resources they need. Even when spouses know about resources, they have difficulty accessing and navigating the Army system.
Encourage spouses to use helplines as a tool for negotiating resources (e.g., Military OneSource). Because spouses have difficulty accessing Army resources in the first place, encouraging spouses to use helplines to assist them in finding the best resources for their needs would serve as the "best" door for making Army services work better for spouses.
Consider building systematic customer feedback into ongoing program evaluation and monitoring systems. Results show that even when spouses used resources to help them with their problems, many still experienced unmet needs. Feedback should be systematically solicited rather than relying on automated comment systems.
Consider targeting vulnerable groups of spouses for outreach, perhaps through existing well-used resources. Spouses of junior enlisted soldiers and spouses who live farther away from their soldiers' military posts indicated that they needed more information about resources to help them with their problems, but they also felt less comfortable using military resources. These groups also had higher rates of unmet needs. Based on this finding, one potentially fruitful avenue would be to provide such information through resources they might already use, such as the military health care system.
This report is part of the RAND Corporation research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.
Permission is given to duplicate this electronic document for personal use only, as long as it is unaltered and complete. Copies may not be duplicated for commercial purposes. Unauthorized posting of RAND PDFs to a non-RAND Web site is prohibited. RAND PDFs are protected under copyright law. For information on reprint and linking permissions, please visit the RAND Permissions page.
The RAND Corporation is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.
Trail, Thomas E., Carra S. Sims, and Margaret Tankard, How Army Families Address Life's Challenges. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2019. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB10081.html.
Trail, Thomas E., Carra S. Sims, and Margaret Tankard, How Army Families Address Life's Challenges, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RB-10081-A, 2019. As of December 15, 2019: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB10081.html