Work-life balance is about creating and maintaining supportive and healthy work environments, which will enable employees to have balance between work and personal responsibilities and thus strengthen employee loyalty and productivity.

Numerous studies have been conducted on work-life balance. According to a major Canadian study conducted by Lowe (2005), 1 in 4 employees experience high levels of conflict between work and family, based on work-to-family interference and caregiver strain. If role overload is included, then close to 60 percent of employees surveyed experience work-family conflict.

Of all the job factors that influence work-life conflict, the amount of time spent at work is the strongest and most consistent predictor. The higher levels of work-to-family conflict reported by managers or professionals often are a function of their longer work hours. Other reasons include: job security, support from one’s supervisor, support from co-workers, work demands or overload, work-role conflict, work-role ambiguity, job dissatisfaction, and extensive use of communication technology that blurs the boundaries between home and work.

Today’s workers have many competing responsibilities such as work, children, housework, volunteering, spouse and elderly parent care and this places stress on individuals, families and the communities in which they reside. Work-life conflict is a serious problem that impacts workers, their employers and communities.

It seems that this problem is increasing over time due to high female labour force participation rates, increasing numbers of single parent families, the predominance of the dual-earner family and emerging trends such as elder care. It is further exasperated with globalization, an aging population, and historically low unemployment.

The Negative Effects of Work Life Conflict

Long work hours and highly stressful jobs not only hamper employees’ ability to harmonize work and family life but also are associated with health risks, such as increased smoking and alcohol consumption, weight gain and depression. Work life conflict has been associated with numerous physical and mental health implications.

According to a 2007 study by Duxbury and Higgins, women are more likely than men to report high levels of role overload and caregiver strain. This is because women devote more hours per week than men to non-work activities such as childcare, elder care and are more likely to have primary responsibility for unpaid labour such as domestic work. Furthermore, other studies show that women also experience less spousal support for their careers than their male counterparts. Although women report higher levels of work-family conflict than do men, the numbers of work-life conflict reported by men is increasing.

Work-life conflict has negative implications on family life. According to the 2007 study by Duxbury and Higgins, 1 in 4 Canadians report that their work responsibilities interfere with their ability to fulfill their responsibilities at home.

Employees, especially the younger generation who are faced with long hours, the expectations of 24/7 connection and increasing pressure of globalization are beginning to demand changes from their employers. Also, people in the elderly employee segment are working longer now than in the past and are demanding different work arrangements to accommodate their life style needs.

Current Practices

Employers are becoming increasingly aware of the cost implications associated with over-worked employees such as: operating and productivity costs, absenteeism, punctuality, commitment and performance. There are five main reasons why companies participate in work life balance programs: high return on investment, recruitment and retention of employees, legislation, costs and union regulations.

There are a wide variety of practices currently being used to help employees achieve work-life balance. It is important to note that some work-life balance programs help employees handle stress and otherwise cope more effectively while other programs help to reduce the absolute stress levels by rebalancing work life.

A growing number of employers have implemented wellness programs or pay for their employees’ gym membership as part of a benefits package. Some companies invite fitness trainers or yoga instructors into the office to hold lunchtime sessions.

Some companies undertake initiatives to improve employees’ healthy eating habits. Others offer stress management programs which include stretching, yoga, counseling, as well as bringing in Registered Massage Therapists to work.

Many employers are offering longer vacation times than the mandatory 2 weeks per year imposed by Canadian legislation. Additionally, some companies will offer “flex” days. Interestingly, sick days tend to go down once some is “entitled” to three weeks or more a year of holidays.

Human resources policies that can be used to increase work-life balance include implementing time off in lieu of overtime pay arrangements, providing a limited number of days of paid leave per year for child care, elder care or personal problems, or having policies around weekend and evening use of laptops and Blackberrys.

There are some issues that arise when employees have flexible work hours such as lack of face-time with other staff and not being as available to clients; these issues can be solved by ensuring employees discuss scheduling with supervisor and let clients and other employees know their hours of availability.

Sometimes in order to accommodate workers need for work life balance, firms may need to reduce the amount of work given to each employee. To accomplish this, employers can hire new people, reduce time spent in job-related travel, allow for job sharing, or reevaluate the work itself and how it is structured and organized with work process improvements and/or reengineering of work.

According to a study by Messmer in 2006, flexible scheduling is the benefit valued most by employees. However, increased flexibility, if implemented without conditions and used to facilitate business ends without provision for worker consent, could compromise instead of enhance work life balance.

Conclusion

Evidence suggests that improvements in people management practices, especially work time and work location flexibility, and the development of supportive managers, contribute to increased work-life balance. Work-life balance programs have been demonstrated to have an impact on employees in terms of recruitment, retention/turnover, commitment and satisfaction, absenteeism, productivity and accident rates.

Companies that have implemented work-life balance programs recognize that employee welfare affects the “bottom line” of the business. Parameters are required to ensure that programs are having the desired effect on both employees and the company. Six parameters that can be used to evaluate work life balance programs are: extent of management buy-in and training, how programs are communicated to employees, corporate culture, management controls, human resources policies and employee control.

Finally, self-management is important; people need to control their own behaviour and expectations regarding work-life balance.

Melissa Abercromby

Melissa Abercromby has an MBA from Wilfrid Laurier University with a focus on Strategy and a Civil Engineering Degree from the University of Waterloo with options in Management Science and Water Resources. She is currently employed with Corix Utilities Inc. doing Project Management and Business Development for Ontario Region.

© 2007 Melissa Abercromby