Debunking the myths around Work/Life Balance

By Peter Langford and Louise Parkes

Work/life Balance has often been touted as a key to attracting and retaining staff. However, as Peter Langford and Louise Parkes write, employees don’t care much for the concept of striking a balance between their personal and work lives.

AS ORGANIZATIONS face a shortage of talent and record low unemployment, retention and development of staff will be a key current challenge for HR. Work/Life Balance (WLB) is believed by many to be an important strategy in meeting this challenge, said to improve not only retention and recruitment, but also motivation, productivity and quality of work.

This desire is seen as especially crucial to engaging the younger, ‘work to live’ Generation Y, and for enticing executive contractors and return-to-work mums into more flexible roles. The link between retention and WLB is assumed to be so close that some researchers have included WLB as a subset in measures of employee engagement.

It may come as a surprise then to learn that evidence for this link is weak at best. In fact, new research suggests that WLB is not related to employee commitment and retention, is not an issue for most employees and is largely unrelated to individual factors such as age, marital status or children.

Conducted by the Voice Project team at Macquarie University, the research challenges the importance of WLB in retaining and engaging employees. More than 10,000 employees from over 700 organizations were surveyed over three years. Organizations were predominantly Australian, with 9 per cent from Asia and 7 per cent based in Europe and North and South America.

Measuring 28 management practices, the aim of the research was to identify the practices that best predict employee engagement and organization performance.

Myth 1: Work/Life Balance is the key to retention.
WLB is defined as an employee’s ability to meet work expectations as well as family responsibilities, stay involved in non-work interests and activities, and maintain a social life outside of work. WLB is espoused as a popular ideal with employees across the spectrum, but contrary to expectations, the research found it does not appear to build commitment and intention to stay with employers. Of all 28 HR practices, WLB was least important for engaging employees, and not related to employees’ intention to stay with the organization. In fact, once other climate factors are taken into account, WLB was negatively related to employee engagement.

Myth 2: Employees see Work/Life Balance as a priority to be addressed.
Contrary to expectations, employees are generally quite happy with their WLB, and instead rate other HR practices as less than ideal. The survey evidence suggests that most organizations are providing an environment that supports satisfactory WLB. Of the 28 management practices rated, WLB came in as the fifth highest performing climate factor (quality of working relationships and teamwork was the highest). Seventy-four per cent of employees either agreed or strongly agreed (74 per cent favourable) they were able to meet both their non-work and work responsibilities, and have a good balance between their work and other aspects of their lives.

Some further insight might be gained by looking at the relationship between hours worked and WLB. There is a significant negative correlation between the number of regular and overtime hours employees work and ratings of WLB. As hours increase, ratings of WLB gradually decrease, with ratings particularly dropping for employees working more than 50 hours per week.

Those working more than 15 hours overtime are worst affected, with less than half reporting good WLB. While increasing hours are linked to falls in WLB and wellness (feeling able to handle work with acceptable stress levels), they are also linked to an increase in employee consultation and involvement in decision-making, career opportunities, and awareness of organizational direction. This suggests that some employees are prepared to work long hours and sacrifice WLB because they enjoy having a greater say in their work, and still desire traditional career success.

Myth 3: Work/Life Balance is an issue for individual employees.
WLB is often portrayed as within the domain of the individual employee. Programs to address WLB have included time management, mentoring and counselling services. However, the survey indicates it is largely an organizational characteristic, rather than individual characteristic. In two separate samples of organizations, WLB was consistently found among the top five HR practices accounting for differences between organizations. These differences appeared to be due in part to occupational and industry characteristics. For example, professionals in the natural and physical sciences enjoy the best WLB (82 per cent favourable) and tradespeople the worst (66 per cent favourable). Industries such as cultural and recreational services and transport and storage perform better on WLB (84 per cent favourable) and mining, professional services, and police and security perform less well (61-63 per cent favourable).

On the other hand, ratings of WLB were not related to individual biographical variables such as age (as has been suggested in comparisons of Generation X and Y employees), or family commitments such as marriage and number of dependent children. There were some small exceptions, with fewer single parents able to maintain good WLB (67 per cent favourable), and more over-60s enjoying good WLB (90 per cent favourable). Interestingly, although WLB is often seen as an issue primarily for women, the differences between the sexes were small. If anything, men are slightly less happy with their WLB (71 per cent favourable for men versus 76 per cent favourable for women).

What then is the key to retention?
Clearly a perception of work as simply a means to other valued ends in life will not inspire a strong emotional attachment and commitment to work. Rather than trying to simply balance work and other aspects of life to reduce conflict, a better aim is to align work and life values to create work/life congruence. The research indicates that if organisations can build and communicate a clear purpose, involve and recognise employees in achieving that purpose, and achieve a standard of which employees are proud, then WLB is unlikely to provide additional benefit for achieving employee engagement.

As one employee explained: “I share [my organisation’s] passion for providing innovative, holistic care services for persons … most in need. I hope that everyone who works for [my organisation] can see, feel, hear and experience their work the way I do.”

It appears that while employees don’t want to live for work, the values and purpose behind the work are often what they do live for, or at least are motivated and inspired by.

The Authors
By Peter Langford director of the Voice Project and lecturer in the School of Psychology, Macquarie University, and Louise Parkes, organisational psychologist and research consultant with The Voice Project, Macquarie University. Email: