Achieving the right balance between working and non-working life is a continuing challenge for many employees, particularly for British men who are working the longest hours in the EU countries (Green, 2013). According to the Work-Life Balance Employee Survey (Tipping et al., 2012:92) 54 per cent of employees overall agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that “It’s the employer’s responsibility to help people balance their work with other aspects of their life”. Even if 57 per cent of Britain’s workforce are satisfied with their work-life balance (WLB) (CIPD, 2013), only 37 per cent report that their organisation provides support to manage their work-home interface (CIPD, 2012).
However, in recent years WLB has become a dominant aspect for the vast majority of employers (Straub, 2007). Three-quarters of public organisations provide WLB policies and practices (Visser & Williams, 2006). Nevertheless, whether the underlying motivation behind this increasing activity is to fulfil their operational and organisational requirements or truly to satisfy the employees’ needs is arguable. Key factors driving this development are, in particular, demographic and social change, which have led to a greater participation of women in the workforce and increased employee concern with a better balance between work and home life (Major, 2006; Taylor, 2010). With this, a greater demand for atypical work arrangements has emerged. Furthermore, advances in technology enable to work at any time and any place which thus could contribute to a better integration of employees work and home activities.
Still, there is some disagreement among HR academics and practitioners about the benefits and challenges regarding this concept. The objective of this essay is to critically review the advantages and disadvantages of establishing WLB programmes to both organisations and employees. First of all, in order to set the scene for the examination of the relevance of this notion to both parties, the key term WLB will be defined and current examples of different initiatives offered by employers will be given. After that, benefits and challenges associated with WLB practices will be presented. Two case studies will provide examples of how other organisations have addressed this issue and what the beneficial effects have been. Finally, based on these expositions, the main findings will be summarised and evaluated.
Despite the current interest and discourse about this increasingly important issue, there exists no universal definition of the broad phenomenon ‘work-life balance’ (Greenhaus et al., 2003). Attempting to define this term and identify what it constitutes, results in difficulties. The reason for this problem of definition lies mainly in the different meanings in terms of a good balance between paid work and private life for each individual. Consequently, the definitions and hence the expectations concerning required WLB initiatives vary among employees. But even so, employers who pursue their own economic objectives have different perceptions of the relevance of WLB policies (Kossek & Friede, 2005). Greenhaus et al. (2003:513) describe WLB as “the extent to which an individual is equally engaged in - and equally satisfied with - his or her work role and family role”. In their opinion, WLB consists of the following three components: time balance (an equal amount of time devoted to work and family roles), involvement balance (an equal level of psychological involvement in work and family roles) and satisfaction balance (an equal level of satisfaction with work and family roles) which should be considered to attain a balance between these two dominant spheres of life.
Implementing a WLB programme may encompass a wide range of different initiatives. Kossek et al. (2010) distinguish essentially between two different forms of organisational work-life support: structural and cultural. Structural work-life support aims to increase flexibility in regard to work amount, location and time of employees. Examples of this type of provision include teleworking, flexible work schedules or other arrangements which facilitate combining work and non-working life. Cultural work-life support, on the other hand, is described as ‘informal workplace social and relational support’ (Kossek et al., 2010: 4) and can be achieved, for instance, by training of supervisors and co-workers, in order to create a supportive climate relating to private life needs in the organisation. Further initiatives could encompass providing the opportunity to reduce workload, take leave or enabling to return to work after a period of absence without career implications.
In practice, according to a survey of UNISON branch secretaries, flexible working is the most common type of WLB initiatives (75 per cent) offered by employers (Visser & Williams, 2006). Job sharing comes second with 63 per cent, followed by home working or teleworking (50 per cent). In order to encourage WLB, other employer practices, are time off for parents to take care of sick children or other dependents, career breaks, term-time contracts or childcare provision. However, it is important to point out that these findings refer to public sector organisations and differ to some extent from the availability of WLB arrangements in the private sector. Particularly noteworthy is the higher proportion of almost all WLB programmes established by public sector employers compared to those offered in the private sector. One exception is the option for working from home, which is more often available in the private sector. One possible reason for these differences in flexible work arrangements is the high female participation and the request for flexible working times in public services which entails a greater demand for non-traditional working patterns.
To begin with, the potential benefits at the organisational level, are attraction and retention of talented candidates (Coussey, 2000; Holbeche, 2005; Taylor, 2010). In fact, the level of, particularly, the younger generation’s aspiration for a healthy WLB is increasing, and people expect as part of the ‘new’ psychological contract flexible working opportunities (Rees & French, 2010). Due to the demographic development and the shortage of well-qualified employees, employers face enormous pressures to recruit and retain good performers. In this context, responding to these changing demands from the employee side seems to be an imperative for organisations, in order to remain competitive over the long term (Kossek & Friede, 2005). Offering WLB programmes and hence improving the employer brand tend to attract more candidates and consequently result in access to a broader recruitment pool (Coussey, 2000). This argument is further supported by Bourhis and Mekkaoui (2000) who confirm in their WLB study that family-friendly organisations are perceived by job-seekers as highly attractive. Notably, initiatives such as personal leaves and flexible scheduling are considered to be pivotal factors in the appraisal of employer attractiveness.
In this context it is important to stress, that flexible working should not be equated with WLB. Nevertheless, as stated above, flexible working is a central and most frequently offered initiative form of WLB practices and could indeed bring a number of advantages to employers as well as employees. From employee’s perspective, flexible working times give an opportunity to balance staying in the labour market with other non-work activities such as caring responsibilities and other private interests (Coussey, 2000). Research (CIPD, 2012; Coussey, 2000) shows that this balance has the potential to reduce pressure and stress. This is not only beneficial for the workforce, but is also an equally crucial factor for the organisation as increased mental well-being of employees is likely to result in lower absenteeism rates. In addition, increased flexibility might positively affect covering absence and staff holidays (Coussey, 2000; Kossek & Friede, 2005).
Further, the CIPD survey (2012) of 754 organisations which offer flexible working provides evidence for these desirable ramifications on different organisational areas. For example, nearly three-quarters of employers, regardless of organisation size, report a positive impact on employee retention, motivation and engagement. Deviations in the findings exist though among the firm sizes and sectors in terms of flexible working effects. For instance, micro-sized businesses are more likely to feel that flexible scheduling promotes their productivity and customer service. However 60 per cent of large organisations cite that they notice a positive influence on diversity. Additionally, Allen (2001) notes that employees’ perceptions of a less family-supportive organisation result in a higher probability of being less satisfied with their job, less committed to the organisation as well as experiencing more likely work-life conflict and greater turnover intentions compared to those employees who perceive a more family-supportive work environment. In doing so, he emphasises the pivotal role of cultural work-life support within organisations.
Other advantages in establishing WLB programmes, for both employees and employers, are stated by Ollier-Mallatere (2010). Drawing on employee interviews in a multinational pharmaceutical company, she has found that work-life and resilience initiatives affect outcomes like loyalty, pride and appreciation in a positive way. Conversely, she highlights observed negative outcomes such as disappointment, over-obligation to stay with the company or in some cases just indifference. Based on these significant insights, Ollier-Mallatere (2010) underlines the varying impact of employer initiatives on different individuals and develops hence a ‘decision tree’ which should enhance the assessment of employees’ awareness, needs, access and judgement of the initiatives.
Further, Kossek and Friede (2005:616) assert that work-life practices may result in “increased competitiveness, profits, and stock price, reduced labor costs, and other work-related criteria”. However, whether working long hours results in an increase of productivity is highly controversial. Golden (2012), for example, shows that in many industries it even seems that shorter hours are associated with higher firm performance. In a more critical vein, Bloom et al. (2009) argue that there is no relationship between WLB and organisational productivity. The reason for the opposing statements lies, according to the authors, in the omission of the important variable ‘management quality’ in most of the investigations. In their study, which indeed includes the management practices, they refer additionally to previous findings (Bloom & Van Reenen, 2007) which have revealed a positive correlation between quality of management and productivity and efficiency. In this way Bloom et al. (2009) contend that higher productivity is not a consequence of the availability of WLB initiatives but rather of good management which tends to come along with good WLB support in the organisation.
Moreover, there are arguments whether a high-commitment environment increases or diminishes the ability of employees to balance the needs of work and home-based activities. On the one hand, Hochschild (1997) argues that working in high-commitment workplaces tends to result in spending more time at work and less at home and creates consequently an imbalance between the two domains. This view is, however, strongly criticised by several researchers. Berg et al. (2003), for instance, show on the contrary that workplace structures, job designs and the overall working environment have in fact significant impact on the ability of employees to balance their different responsibilities. In this context, they highlight primarily the positive impact of high-performance practices such as involvement in decisions, career development opportunities or informal training on work-life interface. From these findings, it is evident that a number of different factors within the organisational context affect the employees’ WLB and have to be taken into account whilst designing WLB strategies.
 All or part of week spent working from home or off premises (Visser & Williams, 2006:58).