Image result for Professor Stephen Wood, University of LeicesterWork-life balance supports provided by employers, often known as flexible working arrangements, include flexitime, job sharing, moving from full-tine to part-time working, compressing working hours, home working, working only during school term and paid leave to care for dependents in an emergency. Such practices are thought to enable employees to better juggle the demands of care and domestic responsibilities with the demands of work, through reducing workloads, interruptions to work, lowered commuting times, and better prioritization of work and time management.

Our latest research shows, however, that these are not the reasons why work-life balance supports improve well-being. Rather, they do so by firstly increasing employees' job autonomy and secondly by enhancing their perception that their managers are supportive.

Work–life balance supports may increase autonomy in a number of ways. In order to accommodate employees' use of such supports, managers may design the work so employees have more discretion over how they prioritize tasks or the methods of fulfilling them. Supports typically give employees a greater control over their time and this may make employees more conscious of time and the need to use it effectively. This may in itself create a sense of increased autonomy, of being more in charge of their lives, and having the energy and time to develop their work roles and having more 'thinking time’. As is most pronounced in home-working, employees may also have less contact with their supervisors and this may have often quite subtle effects on employees’ sense of autonomy. For example, as employees on flexitime may not regularly arrive at work at the same time as their supervisor they are not reminded first thing every day of his/her controlling presence. 

There are two main reasons why using work–life balance supports may strengthen employees’ perceptions that their employer is fair and cares for them. First, managers whose subordinates or peers use work–life balance supports may be more inclined to allow or develop informal arrangements with their staff to aid the integration of work and non-work obligations and cope with emergencies, as work–life balance supports act as a signal to managers that the organization values helping workers to cope with such obligations. Second, work–life balance supports also have a symbolic effect on all employees, signalling that their employer cares for them and that management is supportive of them, but this tends to be greater amongst those that use the supports. Through the use of work–life balance supports, the symbolic effect becomes less of a substitute for real knowledge of the employer's intentions and more a concrete appreciation of management’s commitment. It gives greater credence to judgements about whether the employer is returning the employees’ commitment and hence adhering to their part of the psychological contract.

These factors have a direct impact on well-being but also have an indirect effect through reducing the extent to which work interferes with family and other non-work activities. The increase in job autonomy may enable employees to work more effectively – for example, they can solve problems when they occur and without having to refer to a supervisor –  and this means they may not bring unsolved problems home or be stressed by them. 

In contrast, the use of work–life supports actually increased job demands, although this did not affect employees' well-being. Our results, however, show that we should not undervalue these supports on the grounds that the demands on employees are unchanged or may, as in this study, even increase. The implication of the findings for employers is that work–life balance supports should be applied where appropriate. They are a readily implementable means by which an employer can support – and be seen to be supportive of – employees’ needs, and improve the support and job autonomy they experience.

Stephen Wood is Professor of Management at University of Leicester School of Business.

The research is reported in S. Wood, K. Daniels, and C. Ogbonnaya, Work-Nonwork Supports, Job Control, Work-Nonwork Conflict, and Well-Being. International Journal of Human Resource Management. DOI: 10.1080/09585192.2017.1423102

 Further information is available from Professor Stephen Wood, University of Leicester, School of Business [email protected] or 07717377185