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The past three decades have seen organizations take a huge interest in the working and personal lives of their employees. The understanding that work issues and personal life issues affect the performance of the individual employee has sparked this interest. Lack of work-life balance negatively influences the individual’s performance at the workplace as well as in their personal life.
Many organizations have therefore launched work-life balance programs aimed at resolving the conflicts between work and family life. The importance of these programs has been accentuated by the increasing demands on employees by the organization as well as the demographic changes in the workplace.
This paper will explore the notion of work-life balance with a detailed review on how the practice has influenced the way that management is conducted. It will then offer a critical view of the ethical and moral implications of the practice and conclude by giving an outlook on the sustainability of work-life balance practices.
Brief Introduction to the Practice
Before the 1970s, “work” and “family” were treated as separate entities and the organization was not concerned about non-work related issues affecting the employee. This situation began to change when researchers highlighted a spill over effect where aspects of work affected family life while aspects of family affected work life (Pranav 2010).
This theory led to further investigations, which revealed that occurrences on one segment (either work or life) could have a negative or positive consequence on the other segment. The revelations led to a change in the organizational outlook of work and personal life and work-life balance issues begun to receive significant attention by employers during the 1980s. A number of activities in the labour market also precipitated this attention.
To begin with, the second half of the 20th century witnessed a marked increase in work demands on individuals. This resulted in an increasing encroachment of work demands on family and personal time. The strong rise in women’s labour market participation in the industrialized world also brought to the forefront the issue of work-life balance since the increase in women workers raised the number of people who combine work and family life (Pascale, Laura & Tanja 2009).
This observation is corroborated by Bird (2006) who observes that the initial focus on work-life balance was precipitated by the struggles faced by working mothers who had a hard time balancing their work obligations with those of raising a family.
At the onset, work-life balance was structured to address the needs of working mothers. By the mid 1980s, organizations were making significant changes to their workplace polices so as to accommodate the needs of the working mother. These changes included extended maternity leaves, onsite child-care services, and flexible work hours to help the women manage their family obligations. By the end of the decade, men also began to voice concerns about their work-life issues.
This resulted in work-life balance becoming viewed as an issue that affected both genders and not only women. By the late 1980s, researchers begun to acknowledge that work-life issues were not only limited to working women but also men. Bird (2006) documents that the early 1990s were characterized by an appreciation of the importance of work-life balance for all employees regardless of their gender.
Expansive research on the topic led to numerous work-life programs being proposed and implemented by many organizations. Lotte (2011) observes that the practice of integrating work demands with people’s personal needs yielded to positive results for both employees and the organization.
How Work-Life Practices have Influenced Management
For the work-life programs to have the desired positive impact, managers must implement them. Failure to this, employees will continue to experienced burnout and feel out of touch with their non-work lives therefore reducing their productivity. Work life balance has therefore had some significant influences on how management of employees is conducted.
Organizations have had to include work-life balance policies in order to attract new workers and reduce the turnover rate among their current employees. Research in the area of work-life balance reveals that many individuals in the labour market make work decisions based on work-life issues (Perry-Smith, Jill, & Blum, 2000). Lotte (2011) theorizes that the reason for this is that employees today are seeking to seamlessly combine their work and family lives.
As such, organizations that fail to offer work-life balance programs that will enable the prospective employee to balance their career and family chase away a pool of talented employees who are seeking family supportive organizations. Management is therefore forced to adopt family supportive policies in order to attract a greater pool of prospective employees than it would have if it were only offering traditional career paths.
One of the objectives of work-life balance practices is to change work activities so that they help employees with their personal lives but without degrading the effectiveness of work (Lotte 2011). With this consideration, organizations have adopted cultures that are supportive of work-life activities.
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In some cases, this has meant doing away with deeply entrenched long working hour cultures and adopting an attitude that is accommodative of work-life balance. Visser and Laura (2007) confirm that work-life balance policies are having an impact on how organizations operate by forcing them to adopt practices that take into consideration the personal needs of the employees.
Work-life balance policies have obligated managers to come up with more flexible working options for their employees. A report by Visser and Laura (2007) revealed that because of the progress made in work-life, 73% of the employees interviewed were offered some form of ad hoc arrangements by their employers.
These arrangements included part-time options, flexible working hours, job sharing, and working from home option. In some cases, management has been required to include voluntary reduced hours in order to maintain certain workers. Yeandle (2002) notes that some women find it hard to go back to work after having children.
In order to retain such employees, the organization might have to adopt family-friendly policies such as the presence of onsite childcare centres and voluntary reduced hours. Without such programs in place, such employees who have dependent children would not be able to keep working for the organization.
The relationship between employees and employers has also been forced to change by work-life practices. Specifically, employees have been given more leeway in controlling their schedule. Management is today forced to work closer with employees and be prepared to reach a compromise concerning their working hours. Traditionally, employees had a fixed work schedule and they were required to always report to work at specific times and leave after a given number of hours.
Special permission had to be given for employees to break this cycle and provision of this permission was at the discretion of management. Work-life balance policies have given employees a right to request for work flexibility and managers are obligated to give such requests due consideration (Visser & Laura 2007). Work-life practices have therefore led to increased flexibility in work hours with employees having a greater say over how they manage their time.
The motivational methods used by management have also changed due to work-life practices. Managers recognize that work-life practices can be used as a motivational tool for the employees. By offering flexible work plans, the employee is able to reduce work-life conflict. Yeandle (2002) asserts that the perceived control leads to greater employee satisfaction with their work schedule. This positive feeling leads to improved attitudinal and behavioural outcomes from the employee and these lead to higher productivity.
This is because the practices lead to employees feeling that they have been treated well by the organization. In return, they feel obligated to act in a manner favourable to the organization and these involve working hard to achieve organizational goals and objectives. Work-life practices have therefore led to changes in motivational methods used to inspire employees to reach set organizational goals.
Organizations have also been obligated to foster open environments where personal issues are considered together with work issues. While the organization traditionally sort to separate work from personal life, the work-life practice has led to the two being integrated to some degree. Poelmans (2005) observes that an organizational culture that allows employees to discuss their non-work lives with each other resulted in more satisfied employees who exhibited higher performance.
Managers have therefore made changes to the organization by adopting open cultures where work lives and non-work lives can coexist. This approach has led to favourable results since, as Poelmans (2005) reveals, employees who discuss their non-work related issues at work have greater satisfaction with their jobs and demonstrate higher productivity than those who keep their personal issues compartmentalized.
Management has had to make use of quality of work life indicators to keep track of their employees well being. Such an approach has been necessitated by the revelation that poor work-life balance elevates potential impairments to health and safety.
Wirtz and Katharina (2011) report that work-life conflict is associated with an increase in several health impairments, poor well-being, sleep disorders, and fatigue. All these conditions compromise the productivity of the employee. By utilizing quality of work life indicators, management can assess the effectiveness of work-life balance policies and make relevant adjustments.
Ethical and Moral Implications of Work-Life Practices
Work-life balance practices have a number of significant ethical and moral implications for the employees and employers. A significant ethical issue arising from work-life balance is who should be entitled to benefits accrued from this practice. Waumsley, Houston and Marks (2010) observe that most research on family-life balance defines a family as a unit which includes children and the issues faced by people who do not live within a family structure are rarely addressed.
To make matters worse, most of the programs created have concentrated on the problems faced by families that include children. This omission of individuals not living within the traditional family structure with children is discriminatory since employees are supposed to be treated equally. Research indicates that single employees who have no children receive limited support for work-life balance from their employers.
Waumsley, et al. (2010) documents that in the USA, childless single employees perceived “less equity in social inclusion, work opportunities, access to benefits, respect for non-work life and work expectations than did employees with families” (p.4). Such findings suggest that lack of work-life support for certain employee groups is perceived negatively.
The assumption that only individuals with children and/or who live within traditional family structures experience work-life conflict is wrong. Measures should therefore be taken to come up with work benefit packages that consider all members of the organization.
Utilizing work-life balance policies might have a negative impact on the career advancement of the individual. While an organization will make work-life options available to everyone, most employees will avoid making use of these opportunities since they might lead to other employees assuming that they are not committed to the organization.
This fear is best elaborated by Kodz, Harper and Susan (2007) who stress that many workers are de-motivated by the opinion that making use of the work-life balance practices offered by their organization will hurt their career objectives.
The moral nature of the work-life balance programs is therefore called into question since it appears to offer benefits to the employee but at the same time, the employee is penalized for taking advantage of these benefits. The effectiveness of the programs is greatly diminished since most employees avoid making use of the programme since they do not want to hurt their future career advancement prospects.
Another issue that may arise from work-life balance practices is that they might increase conflict in some employees’ lives if they are universally adapted (Lauzun 2010). For example, work at home arrangements might be used to help the employee spend more time at home.
However, such an arrangement might be seen as intrusive by other employees who will perceive that the boundary between work and home is being blurred through such practices. Bird (2006) observes that without consulting with the employees, work-life balance practices will be ineffective since work-life balance is “an individual issue that affects the organization than it is an organizational issue that affects the individual” (p.3).
Work-life balance programs also raise the moral question of which employees are more deserving. Visser and Laura (2007) document that in many organizations, employee grade is a consideration when solutions such as flexible work time are being offered.
Employees who have post high school education are more likely to be offered these facilities that those without. This is discriminatory practice since all employees experience work-life conflict and the employee grade might not be a factor in the degree of the conflict experienced.
Sustainability of the Practice
The significance of work-life balance programs can be expected to increase in the coming years as the demographic changes in the workplace become more pronounced. Many countries have experienced an increase in the pension age and this is likely to result in an older workforce. With the increase in an ageing workforce, work-life issues will become more important and management will have to react accordingly in order to sustain the productivity of the employees.
The present day economic scenario requires organizations to increase their productivity in order to survive in the increasingly competitive business environment. In order to achieve this desirable increase in productivity, the organization relies on the input of the individual employee. Employees with improved work-life balance are more likely to make a positive contribution towards organizational performance and therefore ensure its future growth and success.
Elliot (2012) argues that work-life practices may indeed be the only way to ensure a sustainable economy for the country. She notes that without such practices, many working mothers would be forced to quit paid employment and this would come at a huge financial cost to the economy. As such, while the work-life practices may be costly for the organization to implement, their long-term benefits for the individual, organization, and society outweigh any cost incurred in their implementation.
This paper set out to discuss the notion of work-life balance, its implications on management and any ethical and moral issues that it might raise. It began by tracing the birth of work-life practices to the 1970s when the relationship between work and life was established with the revelation that aspects of work affected family life and aspects of family affected work.
The paper has demonstrated how part-time work, flexible working hours, and home based teleworking are instruments that have been exploited by Human Resource departments in organizations to help reconcile work and family life. The paper has documented the various ethical and moral issues raised by work-life practices including exclusion of some employees, victimization, and discrimination.
It concluded by noting that work-life issues will continue to be prevalent in the organizational setting and as such, organizations cannot ignore work-life issues without suffering consequences. It can therefore be expected that work-life balance will remain at the forefront of public policy issues for many decades to come.
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