The rhetoric and reality of the work life balance agenda

Wednesday, 28 March 2018 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Many people around the world are working extremely long hours. Globalisation, technological development and efficiency drives has led to increasing numbers of people experiencing demanding and intensified working practices and environments, engendering a general sense of ‘lack of time’ and ‘busyness’. The invasiveness of paid work is normalised through notions of professionalism which ideologically disciplines employees to work intensively in pursuit of career growth. 

While many people struggle to devote quality time and energy to life outside their work settings, they often remain silent about the challenges of work-life harmonisation because ‘voice’ is seen as a sign of one’s inability to cope in a high powered work setting. In Sri Lanka, many female careerists choose to leave organisational careers because they find it impossible to manage competing responsibilities, finding a sense of solace as they are socially endorsed for prioritising ‘motherhood’ over paid work. 

The difficulties associated with loosing trained female workers in mid-career and the perceived ‘business benefits’ linked with employees feeling able to harmonise paid work with their personal lives, has motivated organisations to place increasing emphasis on the ‘work-life balance’ (WLB) agenda. 

Although widely used in daily discourse, work-life balance, as a terminology, is problematic on several grounds. First, we are unclear about what exactly constitutes ‘balance’. For instance, is balance achieved when an employee completes an equal amount of hours at work and home or is balance in the eye of the beholder? Moreover, is balance a state that people can enjoy once it is achieved or is it a process that they should constantly work at? It is also notable that work-life balance implies that individuals are responsible for getting their balance right, shifting the responsibility from the organisation to the employee.

Underpinned by limited understanding and reduced responsibility from the organisation side, the work-life balance discourse encourages HR solutions in terms of policies, promoting a version of reality that policies are a straightforward pathway towards employees feeling able to achieve ‘balance’. Organisations introduce initiatives such as the option to work compressed hours, reduced hours, flexitime, home-working, job share schemes, specialised leave policies, dependent care benefits and options for health and lifestyle at work (e.g. corporate gyms, leisure events, and sessions on stress management). However, the success of such initiatives is a matter of debate. 

Work-life initiatives are often hindered by ‘ideal worker’ norms in organisations. Ideal workers are defined as employees who demonstrate profound dedication to their jobs in terms of long hours, unlimited availability and visibility within the workplace. In the light of these normative notions, individuals who are unwilling or unable to be seen within the organisation at all times are often classified as ‘unprofessional’ and/or uncommitted. Indeed many employees often hesitate to take up flexible working arrangements because they fear being seen as lacking dedication and ambition and jeopardising their career prospects in the process. Individuals who utilise work-life initiatives find that they experience slower career growth than others – that is, unless they are protected by powerful personnel who can buffer them from negative career repercussions. Significantly, non-standard work arrangements are often seen as ‘favours’ rather than ‘entitlements’ in organisational contexts and therefore users of work-life initiatives are often resented by other colleagues for having ‘special privileges’.  

Although organisations introduce work-life initiatives, they do not always proportionately reduce employees’ workloads and/or change the way that work is organised. Thus many individuals find it impossible to work reduced hours because they just cannot manage to complete their workloads. Likewise, working flexibly is often a herculean endeavour due to the practical difficulties associated with collaborating with others from remote locations. While some occupational contexts are certainly more technologically advanced and better organised than others, many employees who work flexibly struggle to collaborate with their team members. The few people who enjoy successful arrangements are those who have exceptionally supportive line managers and colleagues.

Some work-life initiatives have the paradoxical effect of increasing the time that individuals spend within the organisation. For example, many organisations introduce after hours social events and promote these as options for leisure in line with the work-life balance agenda. However social events are often experienced by employees as a form of management control, making them feel compelled to devote even more time to work at the expense of their personal lives. Likewise programs on topics such as stress management are often perceived as useless and unnecessarily time consuming. 

Interestingly, in many organisations, work-life balance initiatives are positioned as policies for mainly women workers who have significant responsibilities outside the workplace. This is extremely problematic because it has the effect of reinforcing gendered ideologies which constrain women’s careers. In other words, the sole responsibility of the household and childcare is ideologically and/or practically bombarded on women, discouraging couples from sharing domestic duties and maintaining the barriers which constrain women workers from advancing to the top. Studies in South Asian contexts report that the few male workers who attempt to exercise work-life initiatives in the name of childcare are often ridiculed by colleagues in their work settings. 

In an environment characterised by a significant divide between rhetoric and reality, employees who are unable to be physically present within the workplace at all times, inevitably end up falling off the career pipeline. Most of these individuals tend to be women in mid-career. Although work-life initiatives are often available in their work settings, these are hindered by significant cultural constraints in the organisation. 

Organisations respond by introducing even more policy initiatives. The key problem is that they fail to consider how structural initiatives can be hindered by underpinning cultural variables. If organisations intend to address the work-life balance problem, they have to fundamentally re-think about the way work is organised and address the deep cultural assumptions which constrain unconventional ways of working. 

What precisely can organisations do to facilitate work-life harmonisation in their settings? A starting point is to discern employees’ genuine needs and experiences at the ground level and introduce initiatives that actually matter to people. Relatedly, it is important to take a proactive stance to identify factors that might hinder policy implementation and take measures to address these. Work-life harmonisation cannot be achieved in organisational cultures characterised by heavy workloads and/or cultures that associate commitment with time spent within the organisation. 

While cultural change is imperative for work-life balance, it is important to recognise that this cannot happen overnight. Changing culture takes time, patience and collective commitment. Leadership by example is essential for this process. Both male and female senior managers need to role model how to work flexibly and combine work and familial responsibilities. Line managers should be trained to provide emotional, instrumental and practical support for employees who utilise work-life initiatives. Line managers are employees’ first point of contact when it comes to unconventional ways of working and they play a significant role in enabling people to utilise work-life initiatives. 

Finally work life balance should not be positioned as a gendered imperative for only women. Rather male workers should be actively encouraged to participate in the work-life balance agenda and be publicly endorsed and rewarded for combining paid work with parental responsibilities. By challenging gendered stereotypes in the workplace through their work-life balance agenda, organisations can pave the way for wider socio cultural change. If couples practise a more equitable division of domestic labour, work-life balance may not be such a problem for women workers. 

The writer Dr. Dulini Fernando (BSc London School of Economics, BSc Lancaster, MSc London School of Economics and PhD Loughborough) is an Associate Professor at the Warwick Business School, University of Warwick UK. Dulini researches on highly skilled work and careers focusing on understanding(a) how organisations can attract and retain highly skilled workers and facilitate their career development and (b) how highly skilled individuals can navigate barriers and strategically utilise resources to achieve career success. Her research on careers in technology and finance, careers in the BPO sector and careers of women workers has been published in world leading academic journals. Dulini consults for numerous organisations in the UK using in-depth qualitative research to solve organisational problems and create empowered culturally sensitive work environments. She also undertakes career coaching for high potential employees and organisational training on an array of HR topics. The writer could be reached via email dulini.fernando@wbs.ac.uk.)

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