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Dr. Matt Grawitch: March 2008 Archives

We hear countless comments, suggestions, and complaints about work-life balance, and as of yet, I still don’t think we understand what it means. However, a recent special issue of the journal Employee Relations provides a very intriguing overview regarding the current state of work-life balance theory and practice. In the introductory article, Doris Ruth Eikhof, Chris Warhurst, and Axel Haunschild provide a scathing criticism of the assumptions and evidence on which the current work-life balance debate rests. Some of the assumptions they challenge are:

  • Work-life imbalance results from over-work
  • Work-life balance programs should be primarily directed toward those with childcare or eldercare duties
  • Women provide all of the support for their families
  • Employees don’t identify with their work roles and need a means of escape

Last year, Career Builder conducted its annual Father’s Day Survey and found that a staggering 37% of working dads would leave their jobs if their spouse or partner made enough money to support the family, while another 38% would take a pay cut to spend more time at home. It could be because they are over-worked, or it could be because they get little support for trying to manage a full-time career and being a good parent. It is clear, though, that the need for men to strike some sort of equitable relationship between work and non-work demands has not really caught on. Why might this be?

Well, a Monster survey  revealed that only 29% of human resource professionals viewed their company’s work-life balance programs favorably. So, maybe working dads want to leave or cut back because less than 3 out of 10 companies have a work-life balance program that actually meets their needs. Why is it so difficult to believe that fathers want to spend time with their spouses, partners, and children, too? We also want to be able to spend time with other members of our family, spend time with our friends, and participate in other activities. I recently came back from a 6-day trip to Washington DC. The next night my wife and I were sitting down talking, and she told me how hard it was being a parent to three children all by herself for 6 days. She commented “It made me realize just how much slack you pick up around here.” It would be nice if working fathers everywhere could get that same recognition…especially from their employers.

What is work-life balance? That is the question that eludes both employers and employees, which is ironic considering that there are an infinite number of blogs devoted to this particular topic. A quick Google search using the terms “work life balance” and “blog” resulted in almost 2 million hits. There are even organizations that exist, such as the Families and Work Institute, Swiftwork, and the Alliance for Work-Life Progress, who specialize in advocating or describing their particular perspective on work-life balance.

So, what does “work-life balance” really mean? The term seems to connote spending an equal time working and not working. Some terms, such as “Family Support” or “Work-Family Balance” even imply that only those with families (usually defined as children or elderly parents) need balance, along with the general assumption that only care-giving women need work-life balance. Most of the published research seems to indicate that giving people more ways of getting away from work (e.g., vacation time, personal time off, paid leave) or providing alternative work arrangements (e.g., flextime, telecommuting) will solve the problem. However, this research is ultimately flawed because there is no accepted definition of work-life balance.

Yet, at the end of 2007, a survey of 5,000 respondents concluded that 57% of professionals considered work-life balance the most important goal for the New Year. The problem for employers is that work-life balance is an empty buzzword; nobody truly knows what it means! It could mean spending more time away from the office…or increasing the amount of time spent at the office working on personal demands…or spending the same amount of time working, but with a different schedule…and so on. As an employer, your first order of business should be to work out a shared definition of work-life balance between you and to your employees. Rather than overextending your financial resources to offer a cafeteria-style set of work-life balance programs, you should first identify a few high-leverage options that would work for your organization (meaning that you have the resources, culture, and values to support them). Be sure to get your employees involved in developing, implementing, and evaluating the programs you create! By partnering with your employees on this, you can ensure that any programs developed will be valued and utilized. And remember, the goal is not to benefit just your employees; the goal is to create a win-win scenario between you and your employees.

Of course, once we get to the end of the year 2008, we’ll see whether any progress has been made in our resolutions for creating more flexible work and work environments!