Work-life balance – Managing the interface between family and working life
Anne Gehrke, Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of the German Social Accident Insurance and Juliet Hassard, Birkbeck College, University of London
- 1 Introduction
- 2 What does “work life balance” mean?
- 3 Prevalence of work life conflict
- 4 Theoretical concepts of the work-home interface
- 5 Predictors and outcomes of work life conflict
- 6 Outcomes of work life conflict
- 7 Gender aspects in relation to work life balance
- 8 Approaches to promote work life balance
- 9 References
- 10 Link for future reading
There is a strong and ever growing interest in the conceptual relationship between work and family domains, with a research history that dates back to the early 1930’s. The world of work has changed remarkably over preceding decades, and the ability to care for oneself and one’s family can be affected by these changes (e.g. due time limitations or absence from home due to business). Work family issues primarily evolve from increased qualitative and quantitative job requirements, due to: globalisation, mobilisation and new technologies, growing service sector) or increased employment rate of women. The aim of this article is to define the nature, causes and consequences of poor work life balance; and outline some strategies used in workplaces to address and promote work life balance.
What does “work life balance” mean?
“Work life balance” is a broad and complex phenomenon, lacking in a universal definition. Greenhaus and colleagues (2003) define work family balance as the “extent to which an individual is equally engaged in and equally satisfied with his or her work role and family role (p. 513)”. That is, work life balance includes satisfaction and good functionality at work, as well as at home with a minimum of role conflicts.
Greenhaus and colleagues (2003) further suggest that work life balance is defined by three key, and interconnected, components: firstly, “time balance” which refers to equal time being given to both work and nonwork roles; secondly, “involvement balance” which refers to equal levels of psychological involvement in both work and family roles; and finally, “satisfaction balance” which refers to equal levels of satisfaction in both work and family roles. Therefore, in order to achieve a work life balance these components should be considered.
When an imbalance or interference occurs between work and family (or non work) roles for an individual this can result in conflict. The most widely cited definition of work family conflict states that it is “… a form of interrole conflict in which the role pressures from the work and family domains are mutually incompatible in some respect. That is, participation in the work (family) role is made more difficult by virtue of participation in the family (work) role”. According to this definition, work family conflict can occur in two directions: family can interfere with work (family to work conflict) or work can interfere with family (work to family conflict). Empirical research on predicators and outcomes support the idea that family to work and work to family conflict are two distinct constructions. Frone and colleagues (1992a) postulate that work to family conflict mediated the relation of work characteristics to family distress/ dissatisfaction; whereas, family to work conflict is thought to mediate the relationship between family characteristics and work distress/ dissatisfaction. It is thought, that there is a reciprocal relation between the two direction of conflict, which allowed for a reciprocal relation between the work and family domains.
Prevalence of work life conflict
Difficulties in balancing work and private life are common, considering the fact that most people in employment spend a substantial number of hours at work. According to the Second European Quality of Life Survey, Europeans are more dissatisfied with the amount of time they spend with their family than with the amount of time spent at work. Workers reported that their family life is more adapted to employment demands, than work arrangements are to family life. Interestingly the negative impacts of private life on paid work seem to be reported by relatively fewer workers. Approximately, 3% of employees in the EU 27 reported difficulties in concentrating at work because of family responsibilities several times a week, and another 8% state that they experience these problems several times a month. According to the Second European Quality of Life Survey about half (48%) of the employees in the EU 27 state that they are too tired from work to do household jobs at least several times a month. Nearly a quarter of the workers declare that they are too tired from work to do household chores several times a week (22%).
Theoretical concepts of the work-home interface
In the late 1980s, a lot of theoretical concepts emerged that described the interaction between work and private life. For example:
- The concept of compensation assumes that deficits in one area (work or private life) are compensated in the other area. Disappointments at work therefore can be compensated by positive experiences in the private area.
- Spill-over-concepts suppose that experiences made in one area have an impact on experiences and behaviour within the other area. Temper, conduct, ethical values and skills are transferred from one role to the other.
- Segmentation means that private life and work do not affect each other systematically. This concept assumes that both areas are separated intentionally.
- The concept of exhaustion of resources declares that resources depleted for one area are not available for the other area anymore. Both areas therefore compete for resources. Conflicts between work and private life can evolve from demands on both sides.
According to Hupke (2010) there is empirical evidence for all of these concepts, but it depends on the individual situation and resources which one may be applicable. Contemporary models try to integrate principles within the work family conflict, with the multiple-roles research). Barnett and Hyde (2001) refer to once such concept: work family expansion. This concept assumes that simultaneously engaging in multiple work and family roles can be beneficial for the physical, mental and relationship health of individuals; through processes like added income, social support or increased self-complexity. Multiple roles indeed may also lead to overload and distress when the number of roles and the time demands of each exceed certain upper limits.
Predictors and outcomes of work life conflict
The aim of this section aims to outline the key predicators of work life conflict concerning both work and private life domains; followed by a discussion of key health outcomes associated with work life conflict. Work family conflict has causes, predictors and risk factors that come from three general sources: the individual, the family role environment, and the work role environment.
A substantial body of empirical evidence has identified numerous demographic characteristic that have been observed to predicate work life conflict: including, sex, age, family status, age of youngest child, and job type.
Family role environment
Several variables related to the family have been identified in the scientific literature to predict family to work conflict; as opposed to work to family conflict. A number of factors, related to the family-related work, have been found to be related to family to work conflict: including, childcare and household chores; time involvement and psychological involvement with one’s family; martial tension; and the number and age of children.
Work role environment
Work-related factors primarily have been found to predict work to family conflict; as opposed to family to work conflict. One of the most consistent identified predictors of work to family conflict is working hour; with higher number of hours worked predicting higher levels of work to family conflict. Specific work stressors that have been found to be related to higher levels of work to family conflict include: work demand or overload, work-role conflict, work –role ambiguity, and job distress or dissatisfaction, job insecurity.
In addition, certain aspects of people’s jobs, which may not be directly viewed as stressors, have been observed to related to higher levels of work family conflict. For example, jobs that require coordination with others at work has been observed to be related to higher levels of self-report work family conflict. Additionally, more forms of technology (e.g., email, laptops, etc.) that an employee uses to communicate between work and home domains or to do work from home has been found to related to an increase in reported work family conflict.
Outcomes of work life conflict
Similar to the predictors of work life conflict, the relevant outcomes can be divided into those that impact the individual, the family and concern work. The current section aims to give a brief overview of the key findings from the scientific literature.
Individual level outcomes
Work life conflict is often viewed in the literature a stressor that together with other stressors has the potential to have a detrimental impact on the wellbeing of workers. Research has established and documented that conflict between the work and family domains has a number of significant negative consequences for individuals Most of the individual-level outcomes relate to physical and mental health. Research has observed work life conflict to be associated with a myriad of indicators of poor health and impaired well-being: including, poorer mental and physical health, less life satisfaction, higher levels of stress, higher levels of emotional exhaustion, less physical exercise, higher likeliness to engage in problem drinking, increased anxiety and depression levels, poor appetite, and fatigue.
Family level outcomes
Research demonstrates that work family conflict affects outcomes related to the family, as well as to the individual employee. In general, work family conflict has been found to be associated with: lower family satisfaction; increase family-related absenteeism and tardiness; decreased performance in the family role, increased parenting overload. Adams and colleagues (1993) found that higher levels of work family conflict predicted lower levels of familial support, and higher levels of familial support predicted lower levels of family-work conflict.
Work level outcomes
Work life conflict has been demonstrated to be linked to a number of work-related outcomes, including: decreased job satisfaction, self-reported decreased work performance, higher rates of absenteeism; increased staff turnover, intention to leave the organisation, increased job stress levels.
Gender aspects in relation to work life balance
Demographic change and labour market influence the work and family life of Europeans. Shifts in the roles of men and women at home, as well as changing patterns of family formation have impact on work life conflicts. Household chores like cooking and cleaning mostly are not shared equally between men and women. The majority of this unpaid work is done by women. Many more women than men adapt their working life in relation to their private responsibilities; they work part-time or regular hours, for instance. Nevertheless, work life balance is an issue for women, as well as men.
According to Gregory and Milner (2009), work life balance models traditionally focused on the perspective of female employment. They state that a holistic concept is more likely to activate workplace support and induce wider organisational change, than policies exclusively oriented on women or those with childcare responsibilities. Approaches should be broadened to integrate men’s as well as women’s perspective balancing the demands of paid employment and personal and domestic life. Emslie and Hunt (2009) also highlight the need for gender-neutral models of work life balance since they see gender as a “dynamic set of socially constructed relationships, rather than as a fixed and binary category”.
Approaches to promote work life balance
Family friendly policies involve all actions that support the compatibility of work and family/ private life. These measures are supposed to enhance choices between private and working obligations. Furthermore, they aim to assure appropriate private resources and the equal opportunities of women and men in working life. The following section will discuss what strategies, actions and policies employers can implement to promote work life balance; followed by a discussion of what employees themselves can do to manage their own work life balance.
What can employers do to address work life conflict
To improve work life balance, employers need to focus on strategies like providing flexibility around work, increasing employees' sense of control and creating a more supportive work environment. Employers should improve human resources development within their organisation and promote greater autonomy by enabling workers to make decisions about how to respond to demands.
According to Evans (2002) four types of family friendly measures can be differentiated: firstly, support of a gap in employment due to family commitments; secondly, flexible working arrangements; thirdly, support of child care or care for family members in need of care; and, finally, information and qualification. Each of these four measures are discussed in greater detail below.
- A gap of employment can be due to maternity, child care, or care for family member in need of care or emergency leave (e.g., to deal with a sick child, or when there has been a problem with child care or eldercare). Support can be given by job-protected maternity leave, parental leave for women and men, paid or unpaid special leave, time to be made up later or reduction in working hours.
- Flexible working time arrangements to enhance family friendly policies focus primarily on the possibility to individually adjust the position and length of working time. Flexible working time models allow employees to, or at least partially, individually tailor their own work schedule. Meeting/ addressing the interests of employees with family obligations can also be achieved by allowing flexible place of work (e.g. telecommuting) or mobile working.
- Support of child care or care for family members in need of care can be achieved through various possible measures: including, workplace or linked nursery; financial help or subsidies to parents for child care; child-care provisions in holidays; breast-feeding facilities; workplace parent support group; and assistance with costs of eldercare.
- Information and qualification is an important aspect employers should consider when aiming to promote work life balance; especially for working women. Less well educated mothers are more likely to be absent from the labour force for extended periods of time, and this is likely to reduce their, already limited, occupational choice and lower their relative earnings. Relevant information and training policies may act to actively inform staff of the benefits available to them and, in turn, encourage their use.
Supportive managers and work environments
Supportive managers at all levels should be given the skills they need (e.g., communication, conflict management, time management and organisational skills, or how to give and receive feedback), as well as the tools they need to manage people (e.g., appropriate policies or training on how to implement alternative work arrangements).
Employers need to create more supportive work environments. To make the work environment more supportive, the following specific steps can be taken by employers: work with employees to identify which types of support they would like and which types could be implemented by the employer. Not all supportive policies are feasible and practical in every context. Three general categories are considered as central for employee’s work life balance: working time arrangements; leave entitlements for those with care responsibilities; and child care.
Information for employees about the various policies that are available is essentially linked to the indication how these approaches can be accessed. To encourage employees to use these policies, senior management should model appropriate behaviour as a precondition. Employees must be made to feel that their careers will not be jeopardised if they take advantage of supportive policies. The use of the different supportive approaches should be measured; and the sections of the organisation that demonstrate best practices in these areas should be rewarded.
Flexible work arrangements
Employers should provide employees with more flexibility around when and where they work, if possible. Employees need to meet job demands, but organisations should be flexible with respect to how work is arranged. The criteria under which these flexible arrangements can be used should be mutually agreed upon and transparent. There should also be joint liability around their use. The process for changing duration or location of work should be as flexible as possible.
It is very difficult to implement flexible work arrangements in organisations; where the focus is on hours rather than output, and on presence rather than performance. This means that organisations that want to increase employees' work life balance need to introduce new performance measures that focus on objectives, results and output. To do this they need to reward output, not hours; and what is done, not where it is done. They also need to publicly reward people who have successfully combined work and non-work domains, and not promote those who work long hours and expect others to do the same.
Employers should give employees the right to refuse overtime work and consider with some caution promoting those who are always available. Some organisations may want to give management limited discretion to override the employee's right to refuse overtime (i.e. emergency situation, operational requirements); but this should be the exception, rather than the rule.
Paid leave for care of dependents
Employers could provide a limited number of days of paid leave per year for childcare, eldercare or personal problems. Employers need to make it easier for employees to transfer from full-time to part-time work, and vice versa. They should introduce pro-rated benefits for part-time work, guarantee a return to full-time status for those who elect to work part-time and allow an employee's seniority ranking and service to be maintained. Employers need to examine workloads within their organisations. If they find that certain employees are consistently spending long hours at work (i.e. 50 or more hours per week), they aim to understand why this is occurring (e.g. career ambitions, unbalanced and unrealistic work expectations, poor planning, too many priorities, lack of tools and/or training to do the job efficiently, poor management, culture focused on hours instead of output) and how workloads can be adjusted to be made more reasonable.
What can employees do to manage work life conflict
Several approaches may help employees to improve their work life balance, for example: emphasis on both spheres of life (work and private life); time management and organisational skills; stress management strategies (e.g. relaxation techniques); and sustain the social support system.
Time management and organisational skills are essential to accomplish specific tasks, projects and goals. Some strategies that could be used: include, keeping a daily to-do-lists, to take notes and put work-related and personal events on calendar. The separation of working time from personal time is also an important issue of time management. Approaches to put it into practice are to be informed about and to make use of flexible working arrangements; with the intention of increasing self efficacy, to control one self’s working hours in order to avoid to much overwork, and creating more clear boundaries between work and home (such as, putting away laptop computer or switching off (business) cell phone).
Relaxation techniques are a source to recharge one’s batteries and replenish energies. These techniques, for example, Autogenic Training or Progressive Muscle Relaxation, help to attain a state of increased calmness and therefore reduce levels of stress.
To sustain a system of good social support employees should prefer activities one can do with family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. It is important to join forces with colleagues who can cover in private emergency cases and the other way round to ally with friends that can assist with child care when overtime or work travelling is needed.
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Link for future reading
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