Home Influence SPECIAL FEATURE: Work/life balance

SPECIAL FEATURE: Work/life balance

Developing a holistic work-wellness model will benefit people and organisations.


The term work/life balance is often used in the context of over-stressed employees, family problems and the retention of “Generation Y” people. Lack of work/life balance is seen as a problem both for the individual and for the organisation. In itself, the term has interesting implications. Does it mean that when we are working we are not living? Or that life outside formal employment does not involve any work?


The reality is that with modern technology and modern ways of living, the two worlds overlap considerably. Sometimes this is a problem, and other times this solves problems for the individual. The ability to process emails at home after dinner with the family can be seen as an advantage or as an intrusion into family time. ‘Team-building’ exercises scheduled over weekends can be seen as fun or as forced extra work.


Another issue with the term work/life balance is that balance for one person is not the same as for another person. It is subjective and the importance placed by one person on certain areas of his or her life (for example, immediate/extended family, church, sport, work) can be very different to how others prioritise.


The definition of the term used in this article is therefore: “A state where an individual manages real or potential conflicts between different demands on his/her time and energy in a way that satisfies his/her needs for well-being and self-fulfilment.” Most literature (popular and academic) deals with work/ life balance from the individual’s point of view. But there are important organisational issues also.


This article looks at both these perspectives.


Individual approach
For individuals today, the problem is usually ‘so much to do, so little time’. Not only is work more intense, but often both parents are working and there are so many other opportunities to do things outside the work space. Organising one’s time between these demands takes a high degree of self-management, and often our education and socialisation processes fail to provide us with these skills.


Achieving a personally satisfying work/life balance requires self-awareness of what one wants and values, plus a sense of sufficient control to make and implement appropriate choices.


People adopt a range of responses to work and life. A response could be that of the “treadmill athlete”, with a responsible position and working long hours, which are
considered essential to reach career goals.


At the opposite extreme are the ‘free spirits’, whose career does not define them, they work for necessities or pleasure and rarely get stressed. ‘Home heroes’ struggle to combine job and family, are often exhausted in the process, but feel unable to find
a better solution. ‘Balance masters’, while highly committed to their work, are determined not to let the job dictate their lives. They may opt for flexible working to achieve balance.


The recent growth of the ‘life-coaching’ industry has been fuelled to a large extent because of people’s sense of lack of balance and control in their lives.


Organisational approach
The business case for trying to help employees achieve better balance is based on the work around employee engagement. The work/life culture profit chain can be depicted as follows:


The relationship between employee retention and work/life balance was demonstrated in research carried out by the Corporate Leadership Council in 2004.


It was found that high performing employees placed more emphasis on work/life balance issues than lower-performing employees. In the South African labour market, where skills shortages drive high turnover among high performers, this is an important finding.


So what can an organisation do to help employees achieve balance for themselves? There are three important levers to consider:


In some organisations, having a policy on this issue can help, in others it won’t. But all existing policies can be checked and possibly new policies on flexibility of time, work location, support and benefits can be drawn up.


Employees can be provided with resources to help them think through their own work/life balance issues and find solutions. Pragmatic education programmes, improving the coaching skills of managers and providing in-house mentors and professional coaches/counsellors can all be useful.


The most difficult, but the most important, issue is the attitudes and behaviours prevalent in the organisation. Any serious attempt to improve employees’ balance must tackle the taboos: what about transfers for high-potential people with a career wife and/or a young family; what is acceptable versus unacceptable pressure, how can employees raise concerns about excess pressure; how is thinking time built into work practices.


People can help themselves achieve better balance and organisations can also help them to help themselves. But if organisations simply continue to ignore the issue – stress, burnout and the resultant loss of productivity will continue to increase.


A study on high-level executive women in the Western Cape found that all participants indicated a ‘complete lack of support and understanding from their organisations’. This surely cannot be an intended consequence of management policies and leadership.


It could be that some simple changes can help to create better balance for employees and hence a better organisational climate.


Author: Penny Abbott, MPhil., MHRP, is Head of the HR Research Initiative of the SA Board of People Practices, the professional body for the HR profession.