The importance of a healthy work-life balance has attracted much attention in recent times. Governments have promoted the benefits of it and many employers have developed policies designed to help employees combine their work commitments with their non-working lives in effective ways. Evidence shows that employees with a good work-life balance are more content, more effective while they are at work and generally have high levels of well-being (Lero, Richardson & Korabik, 2008; Lunae, Bambra, Eikemo, van der Wel & Dragano, 2014). Our research into flexible working arrangements at Cranfield has shown real business benefits from allowing employees some choice over where and when they work and for how many hours they work including better job performance, higher levels of commitment and loyalty (see for example Kelliher & DeMenezes, 2019; DeMenezes & Kelliher, 2016; Kelliher & Anderson, 2010).
Whilst government campaigns and the development of policies by employers have made significant progress in yielding positive results for individuals and for organisations, we argue that it is time to re-examine the way in which we think about work-life balance in the context of the rapid and varied changes in the world of work in the 21st century. To date, much of the focus of ‘life’ (to be balanced with work) has been on parents with young children and consideration of ‘work’ has been based on a traditional model of full-time, permanent employment with a single employer. Yet, recent years have witnessed marked changes to how people engage with work (e.g. the development of the ‘gig economy’, the use of zero-hours contracts etc.) and in life patterns (growth in both single person and multi-generational households, the search for meaningfulness in work and non-work). If there are genuine benefits to be gained from a healthy work-life balance for individuals, organisations and society more generally, it makes sense to take a more holistic and inclusive approach in order to maximise these benefits. Thus, in the new world of work it is important to consider how work-life balance can be supported for all, including those who engage in work in different ways and those who have different life patterns.
Work has changed, both in the way it is done and the in the relationship between the worker and the organisation they work for. Some of these changes can offer employees the opportunity to improve their work-life balance, but in practice this does not always happen and some of these changes also put individuals outside of the scope of more traditional employer policies and practices. Flexible working, for example, is often seen as a ways of enhancing work-life balance, but evidence tells us that flexible workers, particularly those who work from home, frequently work longer hours than their office-based counterparts, working through what would have been commuting time (Kelliher & Anderson, 2010) and can struggle to ‘switch off’. This may in part be fuelled by concerns that there may be a negative impact of working from home on career progressions due to a lack of visibility and opportunities for networking with colleagues and organizational decision-makers (Richardson & Kelliher, 2015). Employees who are on zero hours, or on temporary contracts may find that employers’ work-life policies are poorly designed to fit with their needs. Whilst these types of contract may offer some opportunity to accept or reject work in line with the demands of their non-work lives, in practice they may be reluctant to say no to a request to work, even when it is incompatible with other commitments in fear that doing so may jeopardise future work opportunities. Similarly, the needs of multiple job holders may fall outside traditionally designed work-life policies. Beyond these changes to employment arrangements, an increasing number of people now work outside of traditional employment relationships as self- employed and as independent contractors in the ‘gig economy’. Whilst such working arrangements can offer some freedom over when and how much work a person takes on, they may also have to sacrifice work-life balance in order to gain work and maintain income security, even where this is to the detriment of the quality of their work. Since most work-life support has tended to be provided by employers, people with alternative work arrangements are often overlooked and left to fend for themselves, with client organisations and platform owners likely to have little involvement in facilitating their work-life balance.
In an environment with a workforce with more diverse lifestyles and priorities, employers need to consider whether their policies, often originally designed to help working parents, are suitable for accommodating life commitments and priorities beyond caring for children. Employees may have, and place value on, other commitments outside of work which consume both their time and energy and which need to be balanced with their work commitments. This might include other types of care (elder-care, caring for pets); care provided by others (grandparents, siblings); activities such as pursuing further education and non-work related training; cultural and community activities; religious obligations; health-related activity and pursuing hobbies and leisure. Longer life expectancy means that more employees have elder-care responsibilities which may generate different types of conflict with work from childcare. Different living patterns and multi-generational households mean caring may be taken on by employees other than parents (grandparent, siblings, other relatives, friends). Religious obligations, such as prayer times may coincide with working time. Individuals involved in community activities and those elected to positions in local council and other community organizations may find these activities conflict with work. Employers need to think carefully about how their work policies may need to be amended to ensure that the needs of these individuals can be accommodated. There are good business reasons to do this -if there are benefits to be gained for employers and for society more generally from helping individuals pursue a better work-life balance, then there is a need to understand what is important to employees outside of their working lives and to take steps to accommodate the requirements of a broader range of activities in work-life policies.
This article is based on All of work? All of life? Reconceptualising work‐life balance for the 21st century, written by Professor Clare Kelliher, Cranfield School of Management with Professor Julia Richardson at Curtin Business School, Australia.
De Menezes, L.M. & Kelliher, C. (2017). Flexible Working, Individual Performance, and Employee Attitudes: Comparing Formal and Informal Arrangements. Human Resource Management, 56(6), pp.1051-1070.
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