Work-Life Balance

Work and family are considered the primary domains in a person’s life. The interface between the work and family domains of life is studied across psychology subfields (e.g., clinical, developmental, social) and by other disciplines (e.g., anthropology, sociology, family studies, economics, women’s studies). Industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists are interested primarily in how interactions between work life and family life, or more broadly the nonwork aspects of one’s life, influence important individual and organizational outcomes. Work-life or work-family balance refers to the extent to which an individual is able to meet the often competing demands associated with work and nonwork roles. The terms work-family and work-life are often used interchangeably; but family sometimes refers more specifically to familial roles (e.g., spouse, parent), whereas life may refer more broadly to familial roles and other nonwork roles (e.g., church member, community volunteer). Because most research has focused on the interface between work and family roles, the term work-family is used here. The term balance is sometimes criticized in the literature because it implies an equal investment in work and family that may not be sought or required to achieve harmony among work and other life roles. Research shows that some individuals report greater balance when investments in work and family roles are unequal.

Models of the Work-Family Interface

Traditionally the work-family interface has been conceptualized in terms of several different models, including segmentation, compensation, spillover, and conflict. The segmentation model holds that the work and family domains are largely separate and have little interaction in an individual’s life. The compensation model contends that the domains can serve a complementary function in that deficiencies a person experiences in one domain can be made up for in the other (e.g., a happy home life may compensate for a dissatisfying job). The spillover model assumes that a person’s experiences in one domain seep over into the other, acknowledging that the spillover may be either positive or negative. Having an argument with a coworker and then being impatient at home with children is an example of negative work-to-family spillover. Enjoying a relaxing weekend with family followed by a productive Monday at work is an example of positive family-to-work spillover.

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Work-Family Conflict

It is the conflict model that has dominated theory and research on the work-family interface in I/O psychology. The basic premise of the conflict perspective is that work and family roles are incompatible; they compete with and interfere with one another for an individual’s limited resources. Thus researchers most often study the nature of conflict or interference between work and family roles, the predictors of such conflicts, and the consequences of work-family conflict. Early research considered work-family conflict in general, but research on the topic has evolved to specify the direction of conflict, both work interference with family and family interference with work. Research shows that individuals experience greater work interference with family than family interference with work. Compared with work boundaries, family boundaries are considered more permeable, and the family domain is more accommodating of work demands than the reverse.

In addition to the directionality of conflict, research also considers conflict’s dimensionality. Typical forms of work-family conflict include time-based, strain-based, and behavior-based conflicts. Time-based conflicts occur when time devoted to one role makes it difficult to meet responsibilities of another role. For example, working late may interfere with picking up children from school. Strain-based conflicts happen when the strains associated with one role interfere or infringe on another role. For example, marital strife may interfere with concentration at work. And finally, behavior-based conflicts result when behaviors required in one role are incompatible or inconsistent with behaviors required in another role. For example, a supervisor may find that giving direct orders gets things accomplished at work, but the same tactic produces negative results at home. Each form of conflict can occur in both directions; for example, time-based work interference with family and time-based family interference with work.

Antecedents of Work-Family Conflict

Numerous antecedents of work-family conflict have been studied. Research shows that work stress-ors, lack of control or unpredictability in work routines or scheduling, long work hours, high work demands, and job stress are all associated with greater work-family conflict. Work-family conflict also tends to be greater for those who have more children, younger children, high caregiving demands such as elderly parents or chronically ill children, little family support, and high family stress. Often, however, antecedents do not have simple direct effects on work-family conflict. For example, although long work hours are generally associated with greater work-family conflict, this is especially the case when an individual is required to work more hours than desired.

In terms of individual differences, higher levels of negative affectivity and neuroticism and lower levels of extraversion, self-monitoring, and proactive personality are associated with greater work-family conflict. Research regarding gender differences in the experience of work-family conflict is mixed. Although some research suggests that women experience more work-family conflict than men, other research shows no gender differences. It is clear in both the scientific literature and popular press that work-family conflict is not solely a women’s issue. Both men and women are concerned about the work-family interface, and research suggests that the opportunity to achieve work-family balance is a high priority for both men and women; it is among the employment features that people are least willing to trade off.

Consequences of Work-Family Conflict

Considerable research has been devoted to the consequences of work-family conflict. Industrial/ organizational psychologists have focused the greatest attention on job-related attitudes as work outcomes. Work-family conflict is negatively related to job satisfaction, organizational commitment, organizational citizenship behavior, and job performance. Work-family conflict is positively linked to work stress, poor health indicators such as depression or substance abuse, turnover intentions, and actual turnover. Although not the focus of most I/O research, some research has considered the influence of work-family conflict on family-oriented attitudes and outcomes. Work-family conflict has been negatively linked to life satisfaction, marital satisfaction, family satisfaction, and family role performance.

Reducing Work-Family Conflict

Research has examined the impact of employers’ family-friendly initiatives on employees’ work-family conflict, job attitudes, and outcomes. Many family-friendly policies focus on creating greater flexibility in work schedules, including reduced or part-time hours, flextime, compressed workweeks, and job sharing. Other programs potentially provide opportunity for meeting family demands and balancing work and family, including sick leave, maternity and paternity leave, lactation programs, child care and eldercare, tele-work, concierge services, and informational resources and referrals.

Family-friendly benefits vary in their scope, availability, and focus. Scope refers to which employees are eligible for the benefits. Although some benefits have the potential to apply to all employees (e.g., flextime), other benefits may only be relevant for a subgroup of employees (e.g., lactation programs). Moreover, even when a benefit is relevant, it may not be equally available to all employees. For example, telework programs may be limited to employees with certain job specifications, and on-site child care may be available only to those who can afford it. Family-friendly benefits also vary in terms of their focus. Some programs focus on employee or family health and well-being. Some are designed to increase the likelihood that employees will be present at work. Others are aimed at increasing productivity, regardless of location.

There is some question as to whether or not family-friendly benefits actually help families. Part of the concern is that the existence of family-friendly benefits may limit individual choice. For example, if an organization offers sick child care, do parents still have the option to stay home and care for an ill child themselves? Many family-friendly programs are intended to ensure that employees are present at work and to give employees more time to engage in work activities. Finally, organizationally sponsored programs may be overly focused on family interference with work, whereas research shows that work interference with family is more prevalent.

Nonetheless, employees generally appreciate family-friendly benefits and are attracted to employers that offer them, regardless of whether or not they are personally eligible for the benefits. Family-supportive policies are associated with reduced work-family conflict, enhanced organizational commitment, and organizational citizenship behavior. Family-friendly benefits also have been positively linked to share prices, especially in industries that are high-tech and those where women are concentrated.

There is substantial evidence, however, that family-friendly benefits are underused for several reasons. First, employees are often unaware of the benefits their employers offer and their eligibility for them. Second, employees may be afraid of the negative career consequences of using family-friendly benefits. Third, even when formal family supportive policies exist, the organizational culture and climate may not support their use. Family-friendly benefit use is greater when the organizational culture and climate are generally supportive of family. Employees are more likely to use family-friendly benefits when they are encouraged to do so by supervisors and coworkers.

In addition to encouraging benefit use, organizational insiders such as supervisors, coworkers, and mentors offer informal support that is instrumental in alleviating work-family conflict. Informal support is also linked to greater individual accommodations for family. Often because of the lack of formal policies, and sometimes despite them, many work accommodations for family are negotiated on an individual case-by-case basis between the employee and immediate supervisor. Coworkers likewise offer affective and instrumental support on an individual basis.

Although men and women both experience work-family conflict, women make more work role adjustments to accommodate family than men. For example, women are more likely than men to use employer-sponsored family-friendly benefits. Women are also more likely than men to restructure their work to meet family demands. Although both men and women take advantage of work schedule flexibility, women are more likely than men to use that flexibility to meet family needs. This type of gender difference manifests itself early in career decision making. As young women consider career options, they are influenced by the type of family life they desire and envision. Young men, in contrast, tend to focus more exclusively on their interests when making educational and career decisions.

Industrial/Organizational Research Limitations

Industrial/organizational work-family research has a number of limitations. Much of the work in this area relies on cross-sectional survey research methods. More longitudinal work is needed, and a greater variety of research methods (e.g., daily diaries, participant observation) is desirable. Although some research considers the experiences of couples, most of the research is conducted at the individual level. Work-family interface issues tend not to be examined at the family unit level or at the work group level, but there are likely to be important dynamics in both.

The samples in I/O work-family research tend to be professionals and managers. Thus we know relatively little about laborers, low-income workers, and workers with multiple job. Moreover, research tends to focus on employees’ work outcomes and some health outcomes including stress. The outcomes for family members such as spouses or children are seldom considered. Research has yet to delve deeply into work-family issues as related to alternate family structures such as single parents, ethnic differences, cultural differences, and intergenerational dynamics. Work to date also tends to ignore both career and family developmental stage. Research lacks a rich treatment of how these variables influence the work-family interface.

Emerging Topics in Work-Life Balance

Although the conflict perspective has dominated research on the work-family interface to date, there is also a long-standing recognition that multiple role occupancy, such as performing multiple roles in both the work and family domains, can be beneficial to psychological well-being. According to expansionist theory, this is most often the case when the roles are high quality and are experienced as rewarding. Occupying numerous low-quality roles that offer few rewards, however, has a detrimental effect on well-being.

There is an emerging trend toward more positive conceptualizations of the work-family interface. Consistent with the notion of positive spillover, concepts such as work-family balance, work-family fit, work-family role integration, work-family enrichment, and work-family facilitation all assume more beneficial interactions between the work and family domains. The central thesis is that participation in one domain is facilitated by the skills, resources, and experiences gained through participation in the other domain. Research suggests, for example, that resource-rich jobs (e.g., those characterized by high autonomy, complexity, authority, and variety) produce work-family facilitation. Preliminary work suggests that work-family facilitation may buffer the negative effects of work-family conflict on mental health.

There is widespread agreement that the distinctions and boundaries between the work and family domains are becoming increasingly blurred. Thus, research is beginning to consider the causes and consequences of less boundary distinction. The causes, primarily technological advancements that enable many people to work from virtually anywhere and produce 24-hour accessibility, are perhaps more readily apparent than the consequences. It is important to note that the same technologies that make it possible to work anytime and anywhere also appear to make it easier to maintain ties with family members and to meet family responsibilities. However, the question of whether or perhaps more appropriately under what circumstances these blurred boundaries result in greater work-family facilitation or more pronounced work-family conflict remains a critical future research topic.

The work-family interface is embedded in multiple contexts. Research has primarily focused on the family and organizational contexts in which the interplay occurs. However, the interaction between work and family domains may also be considered in light of a number of additional contexts, including community, societal, political, ethnic, cultural, and national contexts. The frame of reference influences which work-family issues are salient and how they are understood. Cross-cultural work-family research, for example, demonstrates how work-family conflict is influenced not only by characteristics of the work and family contexts but also by features of the cultural and national environments in which the work-family interface occurs.


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