Work-life balance practices and organisational performance

Work-life balance practices and organisational performance

1) INTRODUCTION

Work-life balance is a concept that deals with finding a middle ground between one’s career and ambitions and his/her lifestyle. This concept allows for the prioritization between activities of paid work and others that are for pleasure, leisure, promotion of health, family, personal and spiritual development and many other activities geared towards the improvement of a person’s overall wellbeing.

Advances in technology have made it easier for people to keep tabs on occurrences in the office even during their hours off the job. Emails, smartphone apps, laptops, voicemails, videoconferencing among others have blurred the line between the job and the personal life of workers. Advances in technology have ensured that people stay connected to businesses even when they are not physically present. Work-life balance has become a more realistic concept and has had many intricacies from traditional abstract concepts where one kept tabs on the organization only when physically present. Technology has substituted traditional managers and bosses and has done away with their authoritarianism for more soft power that individuals self-regulate. Employees today are therefore more connected to their jobs and to other facets of the job than in traditional settings increasing the avenues for occurrence of conflicts. Reynolds (2005) argues that work-life conflicts most likely lead to a reduction in the number of hours worked by individuals or may lead to broken relationships outside of the work. Some people have been found to have abandoned their families in favour of work and others have done the opposite and quit their jobs in order to focus on other activities including family (Aryee et al 2005). Boswell and Olson-Buchanan (2007) list the accelerating pace of technology, pressure from familial obligations and personal ambitions as the major causes of work-life conflicts. This discussion will be centred on the work-life balance initiatives in the private sector with specific emphasis on individual initiatives undertaken by select companies.

The aims of the paper are:

  • To identify the dynamics of work-life balance
  • To evaluate different initiatives undertaken by companies in enabling their workers to strike a perfect work-life balance
  • To evaluate the benefits accrued from work-life balance programs, and
  • To interrogate challenges arising from work-life balance programs.

Work-life balance is a wide topic that has different tenets. There is a litany of literature detailing different initiatives that are undertaken by a number of organisations in ensuring that there is a work-life balance in their employees conduct. These initiatives are equally effective in their own rights. In order to limit the scope of this paper, the use of case studies of companies that have established different programs will be used. These initiatives will be thematically analysed to identify the accruing benefits. The advantage of this method is that it leads to the identification of already established and successful trends with inherent challenges being highlighted.

2) LITERATURE REVIEW and CRITICAL REVIEW

The use of the term work-life balance has become widespread without any particular consensus on what it encapsulates. However, three broad concepts have been insinuated including; juggling, flexibility and sustainability (Neault 2005). Work life balance broadly envisages an ideal situation where equilibrium between an individual’s responsibilities within paid work and other responsibilities outside work is reached. This equilibrium changes from individual to individual and there is no ideal balance that is fit for all workers. People vary in what they perceive as the most important things in their lives. This concept is important in determining work-life balance as some people may enjoy working more than all other activities while others might be overwhelmed by other commitments outside work hence desiring a balance that is skewed towards less time at work. The most basic concept of work-life balance entails a difference and distinction between the concepts of work and life (Visser and Williams 2006). However, in some individuals, these distinctions may not be as vivid. Additionally, the distinction between balance and imbalance in a person’s life is not easily determinable. Thus, there exists no singular definition for work-life balance.

Socio-cultural circumstances are central in the determination of an ideal work-life balance since people who are in low-paid work may choose to work for longer hours in order to earn a little extra (Cegarra-Leiva et al 2012). With this in mind, therefore, an ideal work-life balance encapsulates having autonomy and sufficient control over when, how, and where to work with the intention of fulfilment of both outside and inside paid work responsibilities (Beauregard and Henry 2009). Discussions on work-life balance are mostly centred on imbalances with the emergent strong themes being; the strain that work puts on relationships outside of it, the role that work-life balance plays in the health of employees with the lack of a healthy balance leading to higher rates of sickness, and the pressure that is incumbent on employees in determining whether to choose career progression or life outside of work (Carlson et al 2006).

Themes emerging from concepts of work-life balance indicate that imbalances can have disastrous consequences on individuals’ health leading to stress, illnesses and lack of motivation. Marmot (2004) has documented these disastrous consequences and has listed a number of strategies that can be used in reducing them. Apart from work-life balance being dependent on the individual choices, it is also largely dependent on the life circumstances of the individual. Thus, work-life balance equilibrium points keep changing as individuals’ age or experience change in circumstances either during paid work or outside of it. Stevens and others (2004) give some relevant statistics on the progress that has been made in work-life. They document that ‘right to request’ legislation that has been effect since 2003 has seen an increase in the number of workers who have been allowed flexible work hours due to having children below the age of six.

Theoretical perspectives

Clark (2000) theorizes that people cross daily between the boundaries of home and work. Here, the nature of the borders that they cross can be analysed to determine where the balance lay depending on the ease with which the borders are crossed. However, this theory opens a Pandora’s Box in terms of people who work from home including traditional occupations like farming or the more modern technology-enabled working. Arthur and Rousseau (1996) had theorized a situation where there would be boundaryless careers and the European Union Futures Project had proposed the concept of a mosaic society where there was to be a blurriness in the boundaries between wok and leisure. To some extent, Clark’s border theory draws some parallels with these traditional theories as there has been an increased need for striking a work-life balance with the incorporation of leisure activities within work. This theory can help determine the extent of control that people have when crossing between the different borders. The psychological and physical attributes of crossing these borders has enhanced the scope of work-life balance through allowing for analysis of social construction and cognitive distortion of borders with the intention of understanding the concept of balance (Voydanoff 2005).

Work-life balance can also be analyzed using psychological theory. This entails the psychology of differences between individuals. Understanding a personality can help in understanding the concept of balance. An example of some characters that make for interesting study is workaholics. These are people who work for long hours even where there is no need for it; usually at the expense of other activities or responsibilities outside of work. Peiperl and Jones (2000) attribute this condition to three personality types. They are the perfectionists, the achievement-oriented people and the compulsive-dependent. These researchers also draw a distinction between workaholics and overworkers with the former being those that work for long hours with rewards being in those hours whereas the latter work for long hours with little choice in the matter usually with the belief that these long hours do not commensurate with the rewards they accrue. This research needs development in order to understand the extent to which individual psychology affects the notion of balance.

 

There are many positive influences of work-life balance. First it offers flexibility in work so that people can concentrate on other responsibilities they hold outside work. As a consequence, women have been empowered to progress in their careers while still taking care of their familial obligations (Mäkelä et al 2011). The flexibility of work has also worked to the same advantage for men who can spend more time on activities outside of work. One of the major positive influences of having a good work-life balance is on the impact it has on the health of individuals. Alterman et al (2013) asserts that the workplace is the greatest source of stress in the world today. This thus calls for flexibility in order to strike a wok-life balance which will tilt the scales in favor of reasonable hours worked in favorable conditions where individuals have control and autonomy and have reduced exposure to stressors in the workplace.

Work-life balance is becoming increasingly popular making the employers and employees aware of their responsibilities and the options available to them. However, there is a disparity with the take up of work-life balance in many organizations. First, the balance is meant to protect specific groups like women so that they can progress with their careers while still carrying on their roles as familial caregivers (Bell and Bryson 2005). This means that women are the most likely group to patronize work-life policies. Although at the face of it this is a commendable gesture, it nonetheless creates a disparity within work which might leave some groups aggrieved. Smithson and others (2004) argue that this action may lead to disparities in the gender pay gap thus compounding the situation further. In this sense, work-life policies are usually taken early by women so that they can cover childcare responsibilities hence losing valuable time where they would have advanced to senior levels in comparison to men who take up their work-life flexible working policies later in their lives reducing the detrimental effects of work on health during old age.

3) CASE STUDY/PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE

Different organisations appreciate the importance of having employees with a good work-life balance as they understand the implications this has on performance. There are many initiatives that have been undertaken with the sole aim of striking an appropriate work-life balance. The most important factor is that there must be flexibility in the workplace for the perfect balance to be realized.

Different organisations offer different sets of conditions for employees to feel that they have control and are appreciated. One of the most widely used tool for establishing a balance between work and life is parental leave. This entails parents taking time off work to look after their children. Most employees use this time to ensure that their children’s welfare is catered for so that they can commit their attention and efforts to the organisation they work for without the worry of their children’s needs being uncared for.  The European Investment Bank allows staff to take parental leave on five conditions: they must have continuously worked in the organisation for more than a year, they can take the leave for between one to six months either singularly or continuously for the first five years after the child is born or adopted; they must seek approval from the hierarchy; that this leave is a right and cannot be denied but can be postponed with consultation and; that staff will receive half their normal salary in the first month and a fixed amount in the months thereafter. Staff may also take family leave to care for incapacitated or seriously ill members of the immediate family which includes spouses, registered partners or children. The bank also allows for unpaid leave and time to cater for sick children.

IKEA, a furniture retailer is also at the forefront in enabling its employees to strike a healthy work-life balance. The company’s strategy is based on the strength of the Swedish culture and its staff are trained on it regardless of the country of operation. The first component of IKEA’s strategy is its recognition of the importance of staff interaction hence an emphasis on coffee breaks. The organisation also extends paid leave to staff members for first day of school, moving house and marriage. Other strategies include flex-time, which entails the variation of work starting and ending times, part-time or fulltime employment, arrangement for special shifts, emergency leave, leave to care for dependants, non-standard work weeks with fewer work days and hours, information on an avalanche of subjects including childcare and health promotion. One of the most explicit methods of creating a work-life balance in IKEA’s Glasgow store is offering of healthy meals as a partnership deal between the company and a popular public cafeteria (Maxwell 2008). Other initiatives have included free podiatry services and massage sessions in the course of work. The company admits that this is a method of communicating its desire to have a healthy workforce by investing a lot in them. Massages and podiatry in particular are important since they help staff relax from the demanding physical work in the store environment and also from wearing protective boots for long periods.

W.L. Gore & Associates, a producer of proprietary technologies with versatile polymer polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) used in products in the health care and leisure industries, has employed a variety of strategies to ensure that its staff strike a balance in their work and lives (Maxwell 2008). The organisation does not refer to its staff as employees but rather as associates. They are organised in teams that do not have rigid conventional structures but where leaders and followers are determined by group’s own dynamics. This means that leaders of teams are not there to exercise power but to influence others to perform better. There are certain tenets that are espoused in this strategy. First, all associates must exercise fairness in all their interactions, second, they must assist others to grow professionally in skill, knowledge and scope of responsibility, third, they must consult others before any undertaking that will have an effect on the group and finally, they must make and keep their own commitments. These tenets are the foundation of a healthy work-life balance. This is because instead of employees being managed, they manage themselves by meeting commitments and consulting with others in the group charged with the achievement of a certain target. As a result, the company has very few rules, regulations and policies as groups adhere to their own codes (Maxwell 2008). There are no set working hours in the organization. Rather, group members make commitments to others and ensure that they meet them. The group thus decides what hours different members will work with many choosing to work from home and only coming into the office for fire safety drills.

 

Individually, work-life balance is pivotal in ensuring that people excel in all spheres of their lives. Many organizations that have endeavoured in enabling their workers strike a perfect work-life balance point out that it is usually a win-win situation as the psychological wellbeing of workers is improved which in turn translates to improved motivation and better results for the company.  In IKEA, employees felt that there was a concerted effort on the part of the company in caring for their welfare which in turn led them to develop loyalty towards it (Maxwell 2008). Staff turnover can be tremendously reduced where there is perceived interest in a healthy work-life balance. Companies can be able to better retain their employees if they are satisfied. Workers on the other hand get the benefit of better physical and emotional health leading to fewer cases of stress and accompanying conditions. There are tangible results from having comprehensive programs to improve the work-life balance of employees.  In companies like IKEA, European Investment Bank and Gore, there were fewer than industry average rates of employee absence from work, frequent referrals of new recruits and higher than industry average rates of employee retention.

Enabling employees leads them to develop a can-do attitude that empowers them and makes them more result-oriented. Traditional approaches to management where directives were issued and subordinates conformed are no longer applicable in this age where people want to achieve the most out of their lives. People who are not told what to do, but nonetheless do what is required of them have more control of their work lives, which in turn translates into their outside-work lives. Empowered employees in Gore were very likely to make better decisions and to have more concerted efforts in improving the company than those of companies that have rigid work hours and numerous restrictive policies, rules and guidelines.

 

There are a few challenges that arise from the approaches of the three companies discussed above. First, there is the risk that this positive attitude may lead to employees over-committing to the organization. The environment of high energy and activity can be very absorbing to the point that the essence of having a perfect work-life balance is distorted and instead the employees become predominantly occupied with work (Williams 2005). Experts argue that to counteract this, the organisation must strive to understand the individual circumstances of their employees (Hoobler 2009). The second challenge is that employees get comfortable in the work-life balance programs that they begin to see them as their rights rather than the perks that they are. Work-life balance initiatives might therefore distort a company’s culture such that the members become complacent since they may have too much time on their hands outside of work. Employees must therefore understand that it is not enough to just take time off work but they should be embroiled in other life factors in order for the balance to make sense. Those employees that do not have any other activities apart from work should be encouraged to take up more responsibilities outside of work. This can also be a motivating factor in expanding the scope of work-life balance initiatives.

4) CONCLUSION

Work-life balance is a concept that is aimed at prioritizing between personal ambitions in relation to employment and other aspects of life including health, family and leisure. The concept has been compounded by advances in technology which have led to the line between the job hours and off the job hours being blurred. This is because workers still keep tabs on their jobs using technology, including smartphones, laptops and the internet during times when they are meant to be off the clock. The paper has considered the dearth of literature that highlights the importance of the concept both to the employer and employee. To the former, work-life balance ensures that there is motivation and loyalty which leads to the performance of the job in a comprehensive manner devoid of direct instructions from managers and other bosses. Specific initiatives including part-time and full-time working hours, flexi-times, paid or unpaid leaves to address any problems occurring in the personal lives of employees or the simple provision of pertinent information regarding a pertinent component of the lives of the employees like childcare. To the latter, improved health, lessened stress and the opportunity to have a life outside work are the most notable results.

Organisations should ensure that they work hand-in-hand with their employees in ensuring that they arrive at suitable programs or initiatives of ensuring a perfect work-life balance. There are many examples of successful situations in many organizations that can be employed in others to have equal or better results. It is prudent to note that having employees who have a perfect balance between their work and lives opens up many opportunities for growth of the company as employees will bring their experiences and will be comfortable on the job to have a stake in its success. However, managers must be tactical in the application of these programs as some individuals, as discussed under the psychology theory, may be too embroiled in the work due to the positive energy created that they skew their balance to favour the organisation at the expense of their lives outside of the work. Thus, individual circumstances must be considered. Additionally, it is important that leaders emphasize that some of the work-life balance initiatives are not by right and thus employees should not get complacent as they are guaranteed time for other activities outside work. On the overall, having work-life balance initiatives is a positive step in any organisation.

 

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