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Our Definition of Work-Life Balance Needs an Update, Researchers Say

12 November
by Josh Hrala
4 minute read

When you think of work-life balance, what comes to mind? For many of us, the conversation revolves around only a few salutations, such as for employees with children needing more time off to perform their parental duties or other forms of care-taking, such as those with older family members.

While maternity and paternity leave are still issues that need addressed by many organizations, a new study published in Human Resource Management Journal by Professor Clare Kelliher, from Cranfield University's School of Management, argues that we need to increase our scope from singular groups to the workforce at large.

What's that mean?

According to Kelliher, our current definition of work-life balance typically only extends to specific cases instead of examining how work has changed so drastically over the last few years.

"There is strong evidence to suggest that designing policies to help the whole workforce achieve a good work-life balance brings wider benefits to employers," Kelliher says.

work-life balance

"Therefore, it is crucial that managers and HR practitioners think differently to encompass the needs and preferences of the entire workforce."

A Look at the Workforce as a Whole

To better understand this point, you need to look at how the workforce has changed. Just a few years ago, the gig-economy was just starting out, remote roles were just coming into popularity, and contract work wasn't as prevalent.

Despite all of these changes, the general ideas surrounding work-life balance have remained narrow in scope, looking at specific situations instead of the totality of the modern workforce. In short, work-life balance has catered to traditional roles instead of contemporary ones.

"This paper argues that the study of work‐life balance to date has, in the main, adopted a restricted conception of both 'work' and 'life,' which does not take account of recent developments in life worlds, working arrangements and employment relationships," the team writes in their abstract.

"With the increasing use of temporary and zero hours contracts, growing numbers of multiple job holders and self-employment, especially in the gig economy, the work-life balance of these workers needs to be considered too," reports Cranfield University in their release about the new research.

Work-Life Balance Based On Employee Needs

The team also suggests that work-life balance policies need to encompass the things employees actually want to balance out work with.

For example, people who balance out their work lives by having pets or continuing their education. These individuals should also be allowed to pursue these things and have time outside of work to do so.

"She suggests that other types of caring, such as for other family members, pets and friends; cultural and religious activities; participating in further education and leisure activities all require time and energy and may be things people want to balance with their work commitments," the university reports.

The real takeaway from Kelliher's argument is that the people's lives have changes alongside the world of work. However, despite this, the notion of work-life balance hasn't adapted yet, leaving many people to become overworked because their employers do not value their life decisions as much as others.

In other words, everyone's life is different, requiring different tactics to ensure work-life balance, and it's time us all to realize this and address it.

work-life balance

“As the world of work changes to allow organisations to become more agile, we need to ensure that these work practices suit contemporary lives," Kelliher says.

"Although parental responsibilities continue to be important, the requirement to balance other aspects of our lives with work is equally valid.”

This isn't the first time researchers have come out in favor of better work-life balance measures.

Earlier this year, researchers from Newcastle University in the UK found that organizations that offer better work-life balance initiatives have a competitive advantage over those that don't.

"While flexitime allows workers to rejig the temporal pattern of hours worked, this merely addresses what for many workers is a symptom of work‐life conflict rather than its underlying causes: including, total hours worked and lengthy commutes,” said the study’s researcher, Dr. Al James, Reader in Economic Geography at Newcastle University.

"Offering a comprehensive suite of options including greater flexibility in where work is done, a reduction in total hours worked, and assistance with childcare alongside flexible hours generates mutual gains for employer and employee."

As you can see, this previous study included drive time and other situations that can impact work-life balance, offering the solution of a more flexible work environment as the key to success.

As the workplace changes and technology allows more of us to perform our jobs just about anywhere at anytime, work-life balance needs to be a top focus for employers. Not only does flexible technology mean workers have the ability to work at home if need be, but it also makes it easy for workers to continue working when they should be with their family, tending to their pets, continuing their educations, or simply relaxing - whatever that means for the individual.

This 'double-edge sword' of flexibility requires careful consideration so that it doesn't lead to even more burn out than normal office hours.

It will be interesting to see how this research is applied to forward-thinking organizations in the future. Until then, the key takeaway across several studies is simple: work-life balance is vital not only for workers but for organizations who want to get the most out of their teams in general.

Kelliher's full study was recently published in the Human Resource Management Journal. Read it here.

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