Work-life balance supports can improve employee well-being

Posted by ap507 at Jan 19, 2018 09:41 AM |
Study by University of Leicester and Norwich Business School reveals how flexible working arrangements can increase satisfaction and reduce anxiety and depression

Issued by University of Leicester on 19 January 2018

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Work-life balance supports provided by employers, often known as flexible working arrangements, can have a significant effect on employees who use them, a new study has found.

Flexible working arrangements include flexitime, job sharing, moving from full-time to part-time working, compressing working hours, home working, working only in school term, paid leave to care for dependent in an emergency.

Now new research based on a large national survey by Professor Stephen Wood at the University of Leicester School of Business and Kevin Daniels and Chidi Ogbonnaya at Norwich Business School, concludes that work-life balance supports can succeed in improving the well-being of those that use them.

Work-life balance supports are commonly thought to enable employees to better juggle the demands of care and domestic responsibilities and to reduce the demands of work, through reducing workloads, interruptions to work and commuting times, and better prioritization of work, time management and completion rates.

The authors find, however, that these are not the main reasons for the improved well-being. The novelty of the research is in showing that it is firstly the increased job autonomy that using work-life balance supports provides for employees and secondly an enhanced perception that their management are supportive that explains the well-being effect.

Work–life balance supports increase autonomy in a number of ways, the researchers say. In order to accommodate employees' use of such supports, managers may design work so employees have more discretion over how they prioritize tasks or the methods of fulfilling them. Employees using such supports may become 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’, so the authors argue.

As is most pronounced in home-working, employees may also have less contact with their superiors 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. 

Using work–life balance supports may strengthen employees sense that their employer is fair and cares for them for two main reasons. 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 because work–life balance supports 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 is greater amongst those that use the supports. Through use the symbolic effect become less of a substitute for real knowledge of the employer's intentions and more a concrete appreciation of management’s commitment. This gives greater credence to judgements about whether the employer is returning the employees’ commitment and hence adhering to their side of the bargain.

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 job autonomy may, for example, enable employees to work more effectively – 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. 

Professor Wood said: “The implication of our findings for employers is that use of work–life balance supports should be used 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.

“Our results show that we should certainly not dismiss these supports as having no positive effect even if demands on employees stay the same or even increase.  But, perhaps organizations should also tackle directly the adverse effects of increased job demands on well-being, both in general and that may result from the use of work–life balance supports.”

Kevin Daniels emphasised how: “Job autonomy should be treated as a work–life balance support in its own right, and the way that then core work–life balance supports can increase this autonomy illustrates how the design of work tasks is not fixed or prescribed absolutely by the employer, and wider organizational policies and employees themselves shape them.”

Fifty-three per cent of employees used one or more of work–life balance supports. In the majority of these cases employees use only one support (36% of the sample in the total sample in this survey and 62% of those who used the supports).  The use reflects needs as well as the availability of practices as around half of workplaces either had no such supports (26%) or none (25%).

Data used are from one element of 2011 Britain’s 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Survey (2011 WERS) which includes a management survey in which managers were interviewed in workplaces and a questionnaire survey of employees completed in the workplaces included in the core element of 2011 WERS. The employee-level data for 2011 WERS were collected through a self-completion questionnaire distributed to 25 randomly-selected employees at workplaces where management interviews were undertaken. The median number of respondents in sampled workplaces was 12, and the range was 5–24. Managers gave permission for interviewers to select a sample for the survey of employees in 2,170 workplaces (81 per cent of those where management surveys were conducted). Interviewers then placed a total of 44,371 questionnaires in these workplaces. 21,981 were returned, which represented a response rate of 50 per cent among all sampled employees.

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


Notes to editors:

Further information is available from: Professor Stephen Wood, University of Leicester, School of Business

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