Benefits, Barriers to, and problems with, work-life balance


Work-life balance practices have been shown in some instances to reduce absence (espe­cially unplanned absence), raise morale and increase levels of job satisfaction. Murphy (2006) reports that organisations in an IRS survey found flexible working had a positive impact on retention, recruitment and absenteeism, and these perceptions were shared by respondents to the CIPD survey (2005) who also report very positive impacts on motivation.

Increased levels of performance have also been found as employees are less tired and so work more effectively when they are working. Kodz et al. (2002) in their research found that productivity and quality of work had both improved, as had staff reten­tion and the ability to recruit staff. Perry-Smith and Blum (2000) found that bundles of work-life balance policies were related to higher organisational performance in a US survey of 527 firms. In the early 1970s the UK experienced some intensive industrial action which caused the government to introduce a three-day week throughout the eco­nomy, accompanied by regular power cuts to conserve energy. For that short period industrial production dipped by less than the 40 per cent that working hours were reduced. Control and choice are important characteristics of working life and Kodz et al. found that there is increasing acceptance that choice, control and flexibility are important in work, that personal fulfilment is important outside work, and, further, that satisfaction outside work may enhance employees’ contribution to work. (Kodz et al. 2002, p. 1, italics in original)

In our own research we found that informal flexibility was highly valued and asso­ciated with employee discretionary effort in terms of supporting colleagues, and patients where appropriate, and being available and flexible to cover emergencies. As employees appreciated the flexibility they were given they expressed the desire to give something back and recognised the need for ‘give and take’.

Sabbaticals in particular can give individuals space and time to develop in other ways. Davidson (2002) reports on Elan, an IT company, that funds sabbaticals for employees to develop in new ways if there is a possibility this can transfer back into the workplace. They have supported such interests as horse whispering, surfing, performance music and neuro-linguistic programming and argue that ‘sabbaticals give people the security of knowing they have a job to return to, and they bring fresh ideas back into the work­place’ (p. 37).

In a baseline study covering employers and employees, conducted by the Institute for Employment Research at the University of Warwick and IFF Research Ltd (Hogarth et al. 2001), 91 per cent of employers and 96 per cent of employees felt that people work better when they can balance their work with other aspects of their lives. Employers can also find that such policies can meet business needs for flexibility and can be a way of addressing diversity issues.

Some employers have argued that staff on shorter working hours are still producing the same amount of work that they did on full-time hours; however, this was found to be, at least in part, due to the fact they were working longer than part-time paid hours, as the Window on practice in the following section demonstrates.

Case 31.2 on this book’s companion website, pre­sents two different perspectives on the value and importance of work-life balance.


2.1. The take-up gap

There is considerable evidence that the demand for flexible work options is much greater than the take-up so far, and this has been referred to as the take-up gap. Hogarth et al. (2001) report that 47 per cent of employees not currently using flexitime would like to do so, and 35 per cent would like a compressed week. The desire to work different or more flexible hours is a significant determinant of employees moving jobs either within or between employers (Boheim and Taylor 2004) to achieve the flexibility they desire; the researchers also point to rigidities in the British labour market which does not offer enough jobs with flexible hours. Some work-life balance strategies cost the organisation money and financial limits are set for such practices to be viable. The AA experienced difficulties in setting up teleworking at home. Productivity was greater than that of site-based staff, but in order to offset the cost of technology and infrastructure such workers had to be more than 1.5 times as productive as site staff. To gain such pro­ductivity tight management and measurement of home-based teleworkers is necessary (Bibby 2002).

Policies and some line managers may limit access to work-life balance to certain groups, which is clearly evidenced in the latest WER survey (Kersley et al. 2006). There is also evidence that some employers fail to have a strategic approach to work-life balance, but use such practices in a fire-fighting manner, to deal with situations when they reach breaking point (see, for example, a case study of a Further Education college in Glynn et al. 2002). Whilst organisations can sometimes easily provide reduced hours work for, say, administrative and sales staff, it is much more difficult to do this with professional staff. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many professionals moving from full- to part-time work find that they are really expected to do a full-time job in part­time hours and with part-time pay. In respect of nurses Edwards and Robinson (2004) found that the lack of a strategic approach to reducing hours resulted in a dissatis­factory situation for both part-timers and full-timers alike as shown in the Window on practice below.

There is evidence in the literature that work-life balance requests for childcare reasons would be dealt with more favourably than requests on any other basis. The association that work-life balance practices have with women bringing up children creates two problems. The first is that work-life balance is ‘ghettoised’ (see, for ex­ample, Rana 2002b), as something done for women with children who are not interested in real careers. The second is that this causes alienation from the rest of the workforce who are not allowed these special privileges. In particular, working part time has been a popular option in combining work and other commitments, and yet there is considerable evidence that this limits career development (see, for example, MacDermid et al. 2001).

The take-up of work-life balance options is often equated with lack of commitment to one’s career or to the organisation. In the baseline study Hogarth et al. (2001) found that two-thirds of male employees felt that their career prospects would be damaged if they worked part time, and CIPD (Rana 2002b) found strikingly similar results in their survey of work-life balance.

In addition there are many employees who are committed to full-time hours because financial commitments mean that they require full-time pay. This severely limits the type of flexibility that they feel is appropriate for themselves. Heavy workloads may prevent requests for flexible working, and where departments are inadequately staffed flexible options are severely curtailed. High levels of work, combined with pressure from the organisational culture, may also have unexpected consequences for those employees opting to reduce their hours to part time from full time, as is shown in the Window on practice.

Furthermore, in many organisations individuals have to be proactive and come up with flexible solutions which meet business needs and this is difficult when there are few preced­ents and a lack of understanding of what is available or possible. In our own research (Hall and Atkinson 2006) we found that although the Health Trust was keen to support work-life balance and had an appropriate policy few employees were aware of what was available or knew how to locate the policy. In their Work Foundation survey Visser and Williams (2006) report that focus group participants felt that work-life balance options were not well communicated to them. In addition the majority of organisations in an IRS survey had no procedure for employees to use to request flexible working (IRS 2002).

The CIPD survey (Rana 2002b) reports that 74 per cent of respondents believed that working hours is not an indication of commitment, 84 per cent felt that individuals working part time were not less committed and 77 per cent believed that organisations should allow employees to attend to personal commitments in working time, and then make the time up. However, while these figures demonstrate that there have been some shifts in attitudes, culture remains a major barrier to take-up. Long-hours cultures with early and late meetings are hard to shift. It is argued that more middle and senior manager role models are needed of flexible working and that there need to be work-life balance champions.

2.2. Managers’ role in implementing work-life balance

Whether or not there is a work-life balance policy in existence, it is often line managers who will be the ‘main arbiters of whether work-life balance policies become a reality
. . . both by their attitudes and management practices’ (Glynn et al. 2002, p. 5). The Work Foundation found that managers were the main barrier to introducing and imple­menting work-life balance policies (CIPD 2003). Managers have to manage performance targets of the team and often feel that flexible working damages this, and flexible working for some may mean higher workloads for others. There is a pressure on line managers to be fair and their decisions about who can work flexibly and in what way are under scrutiny and may result in a backlash. On top of this managers may receive a bonus for meeting team performance targets, which may be jeopardised by flexible working. We have said before that there is a general lack of a strategic approach to work- life balance and one of the consequences of this is that when employees reduce their hours the remainder of the work tends to be reallocated to the remaining full-time workers. Murphy (2006) in an IRS survey found that employers appeared not prepared to pick up the costs associated with work-life balance. MacDermid et al. (2001) found that managers had three concerns relating to employees working reduced hours. The first concerned helping employees develop professionally while not working full time; the second was what to do if more employees wanted to work reduced hours as it could be a nightmare to manage a host of different alternative work arrangements; and third, it was felt that some jobs were just not do-able on anything less than a full-time basis.

Managing workers who are not visible (working at home, for example) is a particular concern for line managers. Felstead et al. (2003) report the fear that working at home is a ‘slacker’s charter’, but they also found that home-workers themselves had fears about not being able easily to demonstrate their honesty, reliability and productivity. Some managed this by working more hours than they should in order to demonstrate greater output. To counteract this fear, managers in Felstead’s study introduced new surveillance devices, set output targets and brought management into the home via home visits. Managers also felt that home-working represented a potential threat to the integration of teams and the acceptance of corporate culture, and that it impeded the transmission of tacit knowledge. There is also a concern that only some employees have the characteristics to be successful home-workers, and Felstead et al. (2003) develop this idea in some detail.

It is becoming apparent that a range of key management skills is needed in managing flexibility. For example Janman (2002) suggests that key skills are communication, empowerment, performance management and coaching. Glynn et al. (2002) are more specific in their recommendations. They suggest that line managers need to be able to ‘push back’ work demands from other parts of the organisation which they feel are unrealistic; plan and schedule; delegate in a fair and equitable way and understand the capacity and skills of those who report directly to them. They suggest that it is import­ant for managers to be able to crack down hard on individual breaches of trust without cracking down across the board.

The Work Foundation (CIPD 2003) suggests that implementing work-life balance requires managers to shift the way that they measure staff, requiring more effort in judging performance and output rather than time spent doing the job. Managers clearly have to learn how to manage at a distance. But all this needs to be supported by the organisational culture:

To thrive, work-life balance needs a supportive organizational culture that has sympathetic values and practices at its core. Arguably, training practitioners have one of the most important and strategic roles in creating and supporting that culture through imaginative and appropriate training programmes. (McCartney 2003, p. 39)

Unfortunately Kodtz et al. (2002) found that line managers felt abandoned and did not get the support that they needed.

McCartney goes on to give the example of Ford Europe which provides seminars related to work-life balance topics such as stress management, how individuals should manage their own working arrangements, maternity and returning to work and new fathers’ workshops. Also reported is BT, which offers e-learning packages on skills to enable balance, optimising the performance of flexible teams and judging which roles are suitable for home-working.

2.3. Limits on access to work-life balance

So far we have treated work-life balance as an option potentially available for a majority of employees, but this is not the case in reality. Felstead et al. (2003) reveal that the option to work at home is usually the privilege of the highly educated and/or people at the top of the organisational hierarchy. People in these jobs, they suggest, have consider­ably more influence over the work processes they are engaged in. They also report that although more women work at home than men, there are more men who have the choice to work at home. Nolan and Wood (2003) also note that work-life balance is not for the lower paid. They report that five per cent of such employees hold more than one job, and usually work in low-paid, low-status jobs in catering and personal services. A similar scene is painted by Polly Toynbee (2003). She also reports that many of these low-paid workers work for agencies and thus are distanced from the ultimate ‘employer’. In these circumstances work-life balance policies are unlikely to be available in any case. Even working only for one employer Toynbee reports a hospital porter saying, ‘You can’t survive, not with a family, unless you do the long, long hours, unless you both work all the hours there are’ (p. 59). Felstead et al. (2002) highlight an assumption in the work-life balance literature, which portrays working at home as always a ‘good thing’. They argue that what is important is the option to work at home, as some people work at home doing low-paid unsatisfying jobs with no choice of work location, such condi­tions not necessarily being conducive to work-life balance.

White et al. (2003) argue that organisations are using flexibility to attempt to offset the damage being caused by high-performance work practices, but they argue that flex­ibility is only enjoyed by a small proportion of the workforce at the moment, and in any case only has a small effect on the problem. They argue for more fundamental changes in working practices with safeguards to protect work-life balance, such as giving teams themselves the responsibility for addressing work-life balance issues when setting out­put targets for themselves.

Successful implementation of flexible working is a culture-change programme, one that has relatively distinct goals in terms of values and beliefs, processes and behaviours. Viewing flexible working as culture change places the topic firmly on the strategic agenda. (Janman 2002, p. 17)

Few organisations monitor and evaluate the take-up of work-life balance options or measure their costs and benefits (IRS 2002). However, McCartney (2003) found that in BT the company used an annual survey, webchats, career life-planning discussions, and employee networks to do this.

Source: Torrington Derek, Hall Laura, Taylor Stephen (2008), Human Resource Management, Ft Pr; 7th edition.

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