Work-Life Balance: Theories, Studies, and Applications

Subject: Family, Life & Experiences
Pages: 18
Words: 5024
Reading time:
20 min
Study level: PhD


At the onset of globalization, organizations have to redesign management practices and place people at the heart of the business. It’s a new trend in organizations aiming for a work and life balance. We say it’s a global village and we have to live and cope with globalization. Change and ambiguity continue to rule businesses and organizations. Globalization has entirely changed our concepts and theories of the workplace. For business, it still has to be seen whether globalization has made enormous positive things. But if we look at the negative side of the business, or if we perceive it pessimistically, globalization seems to be changing things from bad to worse.

The subject of work life balance in the age of globalization is complicated and has to be provided serious studies and research. Work and life are not the same as the time of proximity or the traditional ways of business. Employees and the workplace are greatly affected. The situation of standardization and repetition, devaluing the talent and heart of the worker tends to be reversed with the advent of innovative technology, the information age, and the new style in management which is “people as the greatest asset”. The new brand of management in global organizations should now regard the workers and the ordinary employees as equal or co-partners. This paper focuses on work life balance and how workers and employees regard work and connect it with family life.

Objectives of the Study

There are a number of interesting topics this paper has to answer, and these are: How do workers balance the demands of work and family? What is the present trend in work life balance? A case study focuses on work life balance in the retail industry. Other subjects this paper will discuss include concepts and ideas on organizations, work, employment, workforce, motivations, and theories and concepts on work.

Literature Review

A story about Tom, David, and the rest of the working fathers is one of the work-life balance stories which tell the reality of working fathers and mothers in the present world of globalization. A recent study showed that fathers would like to spend more time at home. Stuart Jeffries ( says in an online article that the majority of the working fathers today are not happy, or are unsatisfied with work and life balance, which is to say directly that they are not happy with their job.

Jeffries (2009) cites Tom, a father who likes to be at home, and one of those fathers listed in a report on “Fathers, Family and Work”, which found that 62% of these working fathers would like to spend their time with their children. Tom’s wife, Sue, has to be full-time with their three-year-old daughter and eleven-month-old son. This is because Tom earns more than Sue who was then a shop assistant. If they don’t do it, they would earn less, and the family would just be a bit ineffective. Jeffries (2009) interviews Tom who says that he likes to be with their family or with the children during weekends, play with them or have some coffee mornings, but he doesn’t like to spend full time; that thing is for mothers and not for fathers.

Tom likes to be what fathers should be – bring home food for the table and spend happy moments with them during weekends. Jeffries (2009) states that employers would just have to reduce working hours for fathers who now work more than 40 hours a week, as stated in the EHRC report. In a study by researchers at Brigham Young University, it was found that employees who were given part-time work improved their morale 64%, and 41% of them were even more productive.

Duncan Fisher (cited in Jeffries, 2009), a founder of Fathers Direct, says that fathers want to reduce their time for work and spend more time with their children. He says that fathers are motivated if they do this. Fisher gave up his work with an international development company to be with his two daughters. He now runs a website. Fisher says that fathers have to be provided incentives to work less and spend more with their children.

This was a bit pronounced with Harriet Harman, deputy leader for Labour, who announced that mothers can have the prerogative to transfer six months of maternity leave to their husbands, while the three months would be paid by their employers. Website editor David would love this situation if it came true. David took two weeks of paternity leave and one week of annual leave to be with his family. He says that having a paternity leave is sharing with his wife the burden of raising their child.

The announcement was greeted mildly by British Chambers of Commerce director David Frost. Who would oppose such a proposal but the employers themselves? They oppose their employees, who are mostly fathers, taking more paternity leave. Now how will that happen? It may be good as saying that the fathers would take the place of their wives taking paternity leaves. The EHRC speaks of an added burden to employers. It called for the government to add paternity leave, which may take the form of parental leave of four months, at which either of the spouses, the father or the mother could take advantage. Katja Hall, CBI’s director of Human Resources, says that this is adding costs to employers or taxpayers, estimated to be about £5.3bn.

Moreover, Fisher does not favour extending the parental leave in that this would not encourage fathers to reduce their working hours. Culture dictates that mothers are used to staying at home and caring for their children. Instead, Fisher favours the Lib Dem proposal of Nick Clegg, which states that 18 months is ideal for parental leave, but this could be shared by both with no one taking advantage of it for more than a year – the parents can divide it, nine months for each, or they can be together enjoying the leave. By this, no one will be pressured to take the leave. Men will be encouraged to take the time and spend it with their children.

Husbands would not like to be alone doing the childcare, but they love to spend time with their children. It’s just a matter of sharing and enjoying time with the family. For them, this is the kind of work and ideal life balance. No one is forced to do it. History tells us that work is forced. It is a punishment. This leads us to the next topic of this discussion.

The Origin of Work

Our first concept of work can be traced in the Bible: work is a burden and a form of punishment. God imposed work to punish Adam and Eve. “Thou shall till the land…” Our present ideas and philosophies haven’t been noticeably diverted from the punishment view. This could be one of the reasons why man continues to build, innovate, and reinvent new things, technologies, robots, etc. – to give ease and comfort, to avoid the ‘punishment’, and not ‘to work’ in the process. Work is not something to be loved.

Archaeological findings tell us that mankind had learned to use rudimentary tools as far back as 2.5 million years ago. The tools were used for hunting and making art. Cave hunters were specialists in making tools. Man learned to make machines to enable him to satisfy his basic need for food, and successive inventions would tell us that there are some tasks that we’d choose not to do if we had the choice and that there are some activities which we’d much prefer others to do on our behalf. (Firth, 2002, pp. 17-18)

Theories on work include McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y which explained the organizational change in the context of workers’ behaviour in the workplace. Theory X assumes workers’ dislike for job or work: workers regard job as distasteful. Managers in companies that accept Theory X build a top-heavy organization with many levels of managers who are planning, deciding, and policing what everyone is doing (Fournies, 1999, p. 33); work was regarded as an obligation, or a punishment (Firth, 2002, p. 16). Employees would work for the monetary reward, and the higher the better. With the way people felt about work, the workplace was somewhat not conducive for creativity and advancement.

Theory Y assumes that when people are motivated, they accomplish goals. Workers become productive when they are motivated: to be a part of the team, to be a part-owner of the organization, and to be creative in their work. Money is not an aim or an objective, and work becomes a part of life, not distasteful. Managers in organizations that accept Theory Y push information and responsibility downward, explaining to workers the reasons why things should be done, assuming they have an interest in doing them and a willingness to do them. Theory Y is treating employees as if they be effective on the company because they will have influence on that company.

Related to this is the evolutionary paradigm (Skyttner, 2001, p. 51), which expounds “spontaneous general evolution from the uncomplicated to the complex is universal; simple systems become differentiated and integrated, both within the system and with the environment outside of the system”.

In the 21st century, concepts and theories on organizations have become more complex and wider in scope. The global company needs the support of all its stakeholders to survive in the competition. What was perceived as mere ideas before having now come out a reality – the so-called climate change and global warming. The business world has to take responsibility for the excessive use of fossil fuels and coal gas emissions. In the cities and countryside, businesses and people are now to look beyond their borders and see what has been going on – pollution, the deterioration of the environment, climate change, and so forth. The organization’s focus is on external environments and how to deal with those forces for the organization to triumph in the competition and acquire more profits.

Global organizations are more focused on systems and practices. Stakeholders and staff are enticed to commit to change so that everyone becomes involved. The organizational set-up is still vertical, restricting power and decision on the top while involving CEOs on their corporate social responsibility and the care for the environment. Organizations are global, huge, with challenges that surpass beyond local borders. The employees are urged to focus beyond their capabilities, to be innovative and creative. CEOs depend much on the abilities of their employees, but they continue to be the sole decision-makers.

Organizations and workers have to deal with conflict. This is one change in new organizations that has to be dealt with – conflict can be a source of advancement. Ideas on conflict have far reaching implications.

Conflict theories have a positive, optimistic view of human nature while arguing that it has been perverted by social arrangements throughout most of history. “Society is seen as a corrupting influence because it in effect creates conditions under which individuals become greedy, exploitative, and uncooperative” (Willis, 1996, p. 119).

The most important figure in conflict theory is Karl Marx whose work remains important to the social sciences despite attempts to discredit its relevance. His work remains important for understanding how capitalist and therefore modern society works. Marx’s ideas during the industrial revolution were unique and a source of great change in a rapidly changing social order. It was known as a revolution within a revolution. Change occurs within changes. Marx’s ideas are now ordinary concepts of communism that is not anymore seriously taken.

Under the conflict, a theory is theories of frustration, aggression, and displacement whose common denominator is the stress on the intra-individual or interpersonal psychological processes leading to prejudiced attitudes or discriminatory behaviour. Relative to this is the “realistic group conflict theory” (RCT) which is pioneered in social psychology by the Sheriffs (Tajfel & Turner, 2001). According to this theory, opposed group interests in obtaining scarce resources promote competition, and positively interdependent goals facilitate cooperation (Tajfel & Turner, 2001, p. 94).

Discriminatory workplace policies and practices adversely affect older women, women of colour, pregnant women, and women with children, as does discriminatory conduct at all points of the employment relationship. There are also the disparities between the compensation paid to women and men that substantiate the continued discrimination against women in the workplace (Gregory, 2003, p. 6).

The story of SAS Institute, a billion-dollar software company, is an exception. Twenty years ago, six employees left to get married and have children. David Russo, the Human Resource Manager at that time, contemplated that the prospect that the women would go on maternity leave and not return would mean they would lose great people. So, the idea of a daycare facility for children came forth. They have done this for their employees and their families. Now children come to work every day in several daycare facilities in a company that employs thousands of people. The company also provided for the employees a 35-hour full-time work week, live piano music in the cafeteria, unlimited soda, coffee, tea and juice, etc. (Firth, 2002, p. 64).

Motivation Theories

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

According to Abraham Maslow (1943), our needs are arranged like a pyramid or ladder. At the bottom of the pyramid are the physiological needs such as food, water, oxygen and sex. Maslow theorized that as one set is met, the person moves up the ladder to the next. The next on the ladder are the safety needs such as security, stability, dependency, protection, freedom from fear, anxiety and chaos. Then we need structure, order, law, and limits, and the need for strength in the protector.

The next in the ladder is belongingness and love needs that include the need for recognition, acceptance, and approval of others.

If the physiological and the safety needs are already met, “then there will emerge the love and affection and belongingness needs” (Maslow, 1943, p. 233). Self-esteem needs include how we value ourselves, and our love and respect for ourselves and others.

Then we have the desire to know and to understand (Maslow, 1943, p. 236). This refers to man’s quest for acquiring knowledge and systematizing the universe, or what Maslow calls expressions of self-actualization. Self-actualizing people focus on problems outside of themselves, have a clear sense of what is true and what is a sham, and are spontaneous and creative, and are not bound too strictly by social conventions (Firth, 2002, p. 85). Self-actualizing needs are those where we place our goals for our careers. Musicians for example must make music, or composers have to compose songs, artists have to paint, and poets have to write poems and be at peace with themselves.

It is interesting to reflect on how far organizations play on and exploit this relatively low-level human need. Management in the organization has to look at how it has met the needs of its employees before they can go on and be effective in their job. In respect of work life relations, Maslow (1943), and further Cockman et al (1999), argue that employers should be aware of their employees’ needs to satisfy them and increase their work productivity in this way (p. 184).

The Hawthorne Studies of Elton Mayo

The Hawthorne Studies ‘called managers to realize that human beings in the workplace respond well to recognition, approval and attention and also to being part of a cohesive group’ (Firth, 2002, p. 86). Commerce and industry have to apply methods that should consider human methods and social motives to avoid strikes and sabotages in industries.

David C. McClelland’s Human Need Theory

The search for the theory that could avoid all the limitations of the hierarchy of needs formulated by Maslow (1943) resulted in the formulation of the need theory by McClelland (1987) (Kopelman et al., 2006). Easterby-Smith et al. (2008) also call this theory the acquired-needs theory (p. 178), while Duxbury and Higgins (2001) refer to it as either the three needs theory or the learnt needs theory (pp. 12-13).

The need theory is focused on the acquired needs that people learn in the process of acquiring new life experiences over their lifetime. The three major groups of needs that people acquire, as McClelland (1987) argues, include achievement, affiliation, and power (Kopelman et al., 2006, p. 233). It is the motivations that people have for certain attitudes towards their work and their relations with their employers.

Studies have proved that successful managers have stronger power motives than less successful managers. The human need theory asserts that people have urges relative to the three needs: the need for achievement (the desire to accomplish a goal more effectively than in the past); the need for affiliation (the desire for human companionship and acceptance); and the need for power (the desire to be influential in a group and to control one’s environment (Firth, 2002, p. 86).

Affiliation is the need that people try to satisfy in the workplace as well, and organizations must provide their employees with favourable conditions for professional and personal development in the workplace, encourage the growth of the employees for the mutual benefit of theirs and the whole organization (Duxbury and Higgins, 2001, p. 13). Finally, the need for power is the moving force of the career development and professional progress of an employee (Kopelman et al., 2006, p. 233).

Motivating Employees

Our experience of work is conditioned largely by how we think about it (Firth, 2002, p. 23.)

When we think of work as a mere tool for us to live, we can hardly be motivated. We will continue working for the sake of the salary we get from the company we work for. But if we look at work the other way, we concentrate our lives on work, we become creative in the process.

Employees have to be encouraged and given resources to do their job and manage themselves. We should let them oversee their processes and set their strategy. Templar (2005, p. 3) says, “We should not manage them”. This means managers must allow employees to be free because in letting them free, they think and become creative. If they are dictated of what they have to do, chances are, they become like robots, and they don’t care if a business is successful or not.

Suggestions for managing our work-life balance:

  • “We can’t create balance without considering the elements that we are trying to bring into balance.
  • There are many things to be considered in balancing the equation other than home and work. We have to consider ourselves in the equation.
  • Balance is subjective and changes over time.
  • Balance is what works for each of us at any moment.
  • Our intuition rather than our diary tells us when we’re out of balance.
  • Balance is about saying “no”.
  • Balance is about saying no to those things we originally said yes to.
  • Balance requires us to work in those areas in which we are most uncomfortable.
  • Balance isn’t just about time management: there could be elements of our being that are out of balance.
  • It is difficult to achieve balance without looking at the bigger context of our life.
  • Give the subject of work life balance legitimacy.
  • Personalize it.
  • Set goals” (Firth, 2002, p. 100-101).

Team leaders should replace supervisors, meaning the role of team leaders is to coach, that of the facilitator, not someone to play as Superman (Armstrong, 1998, p. 8).

The way a firm manages its employees influences organizational performance. It is often easier to see what happens when things go wrong – when problems of rising labour turnover, absenteeism and conflict reflect poor human resource management and impacts negatively on organizational performance (Purcell, 2003, p. 1).

The Concept of Work-Life Balance

We discussed theories and work concepts, and something about life. We have to define what the term work life balance connotes.

There is a definition agreed upon by many and this is from the website Actnow (2009) that goes:

“Work life balance is about people having a measure of control over when, where and how they work. It is achieved when an individual’s right to a fulfilled life inside and outside paid work is accepted and respected as the norm, to the mutual benefit of the individual, business and society” (Actnow, 2009).

Bedeian et al., (1998) view work life balance as the ability of the employees of an organization to legally have and use their right for the proper rest after the established period of working for an organization (pp. 475-476). A working idea of work life balance is that “Work-life balance is about people having a measure of control over when, where and how they work.” (Glossary of flexible working terms 2009, para.11).

“In this respect, the measurable character of the control that employees have over the organization’s duty to keep to the established work life balance is essential.” (Literature review: Work life balance, p.7).

Bedeian et al., (1998) criticized the definition presented as the summary of the ideas by Maslow (1943), Kopelman et al., (2006), and Walster et al., (1978) at the web page of Broadband Cornwall. They argued the definition operates with several abstract, general, and potentially ambiguous terms including people, mutual benefit, a measure of control, work, etc. A more widely discussed aspect of the above-presented definition of the work life balance is a measure of control provided to the employees of an organization. If it is a measure of control it should, first of all, be specific, as Travers (2001, p. 110) argues, and secondly, it should be measurable so that one could assess the actual extent to which employees are entitled to defend their rights for work-life balance negotiated with the employer company and promised as one of the conditions of employment (Mitchell, 1999 as cited in Feldman & Paulsen, 1999, p. 384).

Thus these authors summed up their ideas to define work life balance as “the officially admitted and legally confirmed opportunity for the employees of an organization to exercise their rights for the proper balance of work and rest during their tenure in this organization” (Gilbert, 2001, p. 139).

To us, that definition is more legal than conceptual; it is still a limited concept or definition. Work and life should be balanced at work and home. If we talk of the employees, we have to include the employees’ families, their other preoccupations, their feelings, social gatherings, and so forth. Fulfilment and satisfaction at work include the home. The missing part of the definition is the personal part because life in the term “work life balance” is always personal.

Work-Life Balance at Tesco

Tesco is one of the major competitors in the British grocery market, along with Sainsbury, Asda (Wal-Mart), Safeway, and a group of smaller players. By 2001, Retail Intelligence reported that Tesco was holding 25.1 per cent of all supermarket trade. Tesco wanted to learn much about its employees as it knew about its customers. Employee survey data revealed that while 82 per cent of employees agreed that Tesco put customers first, only 64 per cent felt valued by Tesco. The management felt it had to correct this considering the correlation between how employees feel positively about the company and how satisfied customers are.

There was a change in the workforce which was now becoming ethnically diverse. It was becoming difficult to hire young employees such as those from the twenty-six to forty-four-year-olds. Many of them wanted to work only part time, while more women were working in management, and more employees working remotely from stores and offices (Dychtwald et al, 2006, p. 218).

Better work life balance was becoming a priority. As an outcome of all these, Tesco management developed the Employee Insight Unit (EIU) to deepen its understanding of attitudes toward employees. EIU interviewed more than one thousand people outside Tesco, held focus groups with representative employees, and further made studies and surveys inside and outside the organization. Tesco wanted to know what the employees’ value of work was, what they perceived Tesco as an offering and the trade-offs. EIU also incorporated the results of the company’s other ongoing employee surveys (Dychtwald et al, 2006, p. 218).

The result was the classification of the types of workers Tesco had:

  • Work/life balancers – These are the employees who want to work flexible hours or part-time, who are not necessarily interested in promotions but want to challenge and stimulating work and a fulfilling job with responsibility and the opportunity to learn new skills.
  • Want-it-alls are the people who want their work to be challenging and varied and want the company to be successful. They are ambitious and want promotions. Money is an important part of work. They are one of the most demanding and mobile groups; they tend to leave Tesco if the job fails to challenge them or if they can increase their salary elsewhere (Dychtwald et al, 2006, p. 219). This is the Theory Y concept.
  • Pleasure seekers – These are people who are more likely to be single men, had the least commitment and loyalty to Tesco. This group is ambitious and keen to travel overseas and to enjoy their leisure time. But they do not take enormous pride in their work and do not want work to affect their personal and social lives. (Dychtwald et al, 2006, p. 219).
  • Live-to-work employees, not surprisingly, are the most ambitious employee segment with the highest loyalty and commitment. They want to work long hours, desire promotions, seek challenging jobs that offer variety and responsibility, and are willing to put work before their home life. They do not see work as a place for fun or for developing deep friendships.
  • Work-to-live employees are not interested in working long hours or promotions and don’t mind working on repetitive tasks. They want to work close to home. (Dychtwald et al, 2006, p. 219).

The surveys found some motivators for commitment at Tesco. Employees are motivated by the social context. They want to feel a sense of belongingness; they value their colleagues and are more committed when they have colleagues and a manager with whom they enjoy working. They also value the opportunity associated with a pay and benefits package and career advancement. Uninteresting job content was one of the major reasons people leave Tesco (Dychtwald et al, 2006, p. 219).

The EIU recommended that continuous work analysis should be incorporated in the operations of the organization to ‘ensure adequate talent supply, and to communicate with an organization’s leadership in concrete terms what they should know and do about the workforce situation (Dychtwald et al, 2006, p. 220).

The organization should diagnose business symptoms related to the workforce. Some of the key questions are:

  • Can the workforce respond on time to shifting market and business conditions?
  • Are there high turnover rates, especially in specific professions, functions, roles, or age, gender, or ethnic groups?
  • Is there difficulty in identifying and effectively deploying talent?
  • What is the right mix of talent in the workplace?

An organization needs talents because it is these talents that can help in the organization’s survival. But talents are deteriorating in the world’s labour market (Avedon & Scholes, 2010, p. 73). Joyce (2010, p. 123) says that talents have to be retained but we have to overcome the challenges of acquiring talents in the organization.

Some other activities to improve the workforce environment are the assessment of the workforce characteristics, employee characteristics and preferences, and making this information as “local” as possible. (Dychtwald et al, 2006, p. 220).

Silzer & Fyman (2010) cite Gubman (1998) as saying that ‘communication is the number one problem cited by employees that need to be addressed’ (p. 782).


The history or evolution of work tells us that work was not admired or ‘loved’. From the beginning, work was regarded as punishment. But there are positive things to look at work. There have been many achievers in the ‘field of work’. Those people have become creative and very productive in the process. The theories of work and motivation can tell us some reasons for this reality. The success in work and life balance depends on many factors, and it has to be cooperative work, and not a one-sided affair. Management and employees have to work and interact in the process. The organization and its managers have to look after their employees, see that their needs and wants are met. The motivational factors have to be set so that the employees can interact too.

From the theorists and their ideas and principles on those theories, we can conclude that high performance in a job leads to high satisfaction, and not the other way around. People always connect work with life’s fulfilment and this also connects with their feelings and satisfaction of life and happiness with their family. If they are not happy at work, it will redound to their feelings and attitudes at home. Satisfaction in the workplace means happiness at home and fulfilment in life.

Work life balance is a continuous process that has to be cooperative work among employees, the management or the organization, and the family. If work is a burden, there is no contentment. Jeffries’s article on the current work life balance sentiments among the UK working fathers is a wake-up call for the government and employers. Fathers would love to spend more time with their children, but not full-time caring. Culture still dictates that the home is for mothers.

Our case study for work life balance, which is the Tesco organization, can tell us how important it is for the organization to value their employees, and to have constant knowledge of the employees’ feelings and attitudes towards work. It is not enough to ‘take care’ of the employees; the organization should also continuously assess the employees’ activities and attitude in their work.

Finally, the term work and life balance suggest a balance; meaning there has to be blending equality that includes work, family, pleasure, fulfilment, and satisfaction. There are motivations and goals. It’s not complicated. What is needed is an understanding of everybody’s wants and needs.


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