There are two general perspectives on what work-family balance is, both of which are rooted in role theory. The traditional view comes from theory on interrole conflict and defines work-family balance as an absence of conflict between work and family roles. Role conflict occurs when the demands of the two roles are incompatible, such that participation in one role makes it difficult or impossible to fulfill the obligations of the other role. The view of work-family balance being the absence of work-family conflict recently was augmented to include the extent to which one role (work or family) provides skills and experiences that are helpful in carrying out the demands of the other role. This is referred to as facilitation, enrichment, enhancement, or positive spillover. According to this perspective, work-family balance exists when there is low work-family conflict and high work-family facilitation. Imbalance, then, is characterized by high conflict and low facilitation. Both conflict and facilitation can occur in two directions: when work role demands interfere with or enhance family role demands (work-to-family conflict/facilitation) and when family role demands interfere with or enhance work role demands (family-to-work conflict/facilitation).
Most research on work-family balance—indeed, most research on the work-family interface—has focused on work-family conflict, with facilitation processes and outcomes only recently being investigated. Also, like most work-family research, a great deal of the studies conducted have been atheoretical in nature, relying instead on the empirical findings of prior research to inform new hypotheses. Only recently has work-family balance been conceptualized affirmatively rather than as something that it is not (i.e., conflict).
This second perspective is grounded in theory on role balance and defines work-family balance as the extent to which a person is equally engaged in and satisfied with his or her work and family roles. Work-family role balance has three components: time, involvement, and satisfaction balance. People achieve balance when they spend equal amounts of time in each role, are psychologically involved to the same extent with each role, and are equally satisfied with each role. This perspective conceptualizes work-family balance as existing along a continuum, ranging from extreme role imbalance that heavily favors work or family over the other, to perfect balance that puts the two roles on equal footing. Two types of balance are possible: positive balance and negative balance. Positive balance occurs when the amount of time, involvement, and satisfaction are equivalent and high for both the work and family roles. Negative balance occurs when the amount of time, involvement, and satisfaction are equivalent and low for both the work and family roles. For example, a person who spends little time in both the work and family roles, is psychologically withdrawn from both roles, and is dissatisfied with both roles has achieved negative balance in all three dimensions. This distinction highlights the idea that not all balance is necessarily helpful or adaptive.
This understanding of work-family balance differentiates it from work-family conflict and from other conceptualizations that are used to understand how the work and family domains are connected to each other. For instance, these two life domains have been thought of as accommodating each other; draining resources from each other; and compensating for, spilling over to, and enriching each other. In each case, something that happens in one sphere of life (work or family) then affects the other sphere of life, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. Rather than concentrating on how the two roles iteratively affect each other, this second conceptualization of work-life balance focuses on the equivalence of engagement and satisfaction across roles.
Research using this formulation of work-life balance is sparse but has indicated that when people spend a large amount of their total time and total psychological investment in their work and family roles, and when they are imbalanced in favor of the family role, people experience the least stress and work-to-family conflict and, in turn, the highest quality of life. Those who are imbalanced in favor of the work role experience the most stress and work-to-family conflict and, in turn, the lowest quality of life. Those who are balanced fall in between. Similar results were found with respect to satisfaction with life roles. The least work-to-family conflict and stress and, in turn, the highest quality of life were found for those with greater family than work role satisfaction, followed by those who were equally satisfied with their roles, then by those who were more satisfied by their work roles.
When people invest little time, involvement, or satisfaction in their work and family roles, balance does not predict quality of life. Specifically, individuals who are generally disengaged and dissatisfied with both their work and family roles tend to report a low quality of life, regardless of the degree of role balance or imbalance they have achieved. This supports the idea that negative balance may not be desirable. Overall, this research indicates that imbalances favoring work over family roles tend to result in lower quality of life because they create greater work-to-family conflict and more stress.
Such results call into question the assumption that has been made in most work-family research that balance is desirable. From an individual outcome point of view, this may not be the case. Research is needed that investigates how the three components of work-life balance are related to organizational outcomes, such as organizational commitment, productivity, and performance quality.
There remains an intuitive appeal to the idea of achieving balance between work and family roles, perhaps because moving toward balance would, for many people, involve moving away from the problematic imbalances favoring work over family roles. Many organizations now offer employee-friendly benefits designed to help people negotiate the conflicting demands of their work and family roles more successfully. For instance, companies provide child care programs, elder care assistance, telecommuting options, and flexible work hours. The extent to which employees perceive their organizations as being responsive to their work-family issues has been associated with greater job satisfaction, organizational commitment, work functioning, and family functioning, as well as less work-family conflict and lower turnover intentions. Researchers have not yet determined how well such offerings help employees reduce the problematic life role imbalances that favor work over family.
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