I was intrigued this past week when I noticed a new article coming out in the Academy of Management Annals. Perrigino, Dunford, and Wilson (in press) provide a review of a concept they termed work-family backlash. In the article, they emphasize that backlash from work-life balance (WLB) policies and practices can occur due to:
- perceptions of inequity from policies and practices being available for some employees but not others;
- stigmatization that occurs when employees use existing policies and practices, such as flextime or parental leave options;
- negative spillover that occurs when employees who use WLB policies and practices end up experiencing more negative outcomes outside of work (e.g., those who feel compelled to work more hours when they work from home); and
- strategic mismanagement, such as when the cost of such practices are poorly considered, when practices are rescinded due to a failure to produce desired results, or when policies exist but are not actually supported.
While an extensive body of literature does not yet exist regarding these issues, it is clear that the current research suggests that organizations need to be mindful of how they approach the issue of WLB. It certainly has become a trendy topic within contemporary organizations, and a fair amount of public opinion polling suggests that employees will stay or leave, at least in part, due to their perceived work-life balance.
Before you jump on the bandwagon
Yet, as this recent review emphasizes, if organizations want to benefit from these types of policies and practices, then the decision to offer them must involve more than simply a desire to jump on the WLB bandwagon. A systematic process needs to occur to ensure that the practices are well designed to meet the needs of the organization as a whole.
But there is a problem that occurs when the topic of work-life balance surfaces. There is no universal, accepted definition for work-life balance (or any of the myriad terms that are used). Specific WLB policies and practices often arise from many sources:
- In response to a given need, perhaps identified as part of an annual employee survey;
- As a way to improve retention, productivity or attractiveness to job candidates, whether or not evidence suggests that WLB issues are important;
- As a way of keeping pace with competitors; and
- Organically within a given work unit or department as a function of a manager’s or supervisor’s perspective on the issue.
The examples above highlight that specific WLB policies and practices may develop, not as a part of an overall strategy, but to serve specific tactical purposes. When that occurs, organizations run the risk of creating policies and practices that either fail to produce the desired results or produce unintended consequences.
Even if there is an overarching strategy, it is often assumed that practices, if well designed, will be also well implemented. In other words, as evidenced by Perrigino et al., there is a difference between availability and utilization.
Making work-life practices available for employees is only the first step
To ensure these practices are used, organizations need put forth effort to ensure:
- These practices are a fit with the organization’s existing culture;
- They align with assumptions and values of managers up and down the hierarchy;
- Proper structures and processes exist to support these policies and practices; and
- There will not be unintended negative consequences as a result of implementing them.
In other words, there is a lot of effort that needs to go into the development and implementation of WLB policies and practices if they are going to be effective. When it comes to developing a psychologically healthy workplace, organizations need to better understand where interventions are needed and what types of interventions are likely to produce the intended results. An important step in this process is ensuring that whatever policies and practices are designed are part of a holistic approach to organizational development.
Want to know more about building work-life balance through work flexibility? Check out APA’s work-flex resource guide.