The constraints of a 'work-life b...
The constraints of a ���work���life balance��� approach: an international perspective Suzan Lewis, Richenda Gambles and Rhona Rapoport Keywords Work���life balance discourse flexibility gender culture. Locating work���life balance discourse in time and place The huge recent growth in attention to ���work���life balance���(WLB) dilemmas in academic, political, professional and popular literature might give the impression that this is, at best, a new area of concern, or at worst, a passing fad. This would, however, be misleading. The WLB metaphor is a social construct located within a particular period of time and originating in a Western context, but dilemmas relating to the management of paid work alongside other parts of life, especially family, have been the focus of research for several decades (see, e.g., Rapoport and Rapoport, 1965). Research on this topic has always reflected social, economic and workplace developments and concerns, shifting in response to new trends. For example, as the numbers of women entering the labour force grew, from the 1960s, research in certain contexts tended to focus on ���working mothers��� or dual earner families, while concerns about stress and burnout associated with workplace changes in the 1980s and 1990s were reflected in research and debate about work���family conflict (Lewis and Cooper, 1999). The terminology used to refer to these issues continues to evolve in response to current concerns. In particular, a shift from ���work���family��� and ���family-friendly policies��� with their implicit focus on women, especially mothers, to ���work���life���, the precursor of the more recent ���work���life balance��� (WLB) discourse began in the 1990s. This linguistic shift reflected a broader and more inclusive way of framing the debate to engage men and women with and without children or other caring commitments and was partly a response to backlash against work���family policies by those without obvious family obligations. In this paper we argue that the popularity of the WLB discourse and the exponential growth in WLB research and practice in recent years also reflects a period of social and economic development, in which there has been profound changes in the nature of work. In the context of globalization, organizational reorganization and efficiency drives, deregulation, increasingly sophisticated technology, the 24/7 workplace and weakened trade unions in many contexts, constant change became a feature of most organizations (Marchington et al., 2005 Sennett, 1998). Growing numbers of people report that they The International Journal of Human Resource Management ISSN 0958-5192 print/ISSN 1466-4399 online q 2007 Taylor & Francis http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/09585190601165577 Suzan Lewis, Middlesex University Business School, The Burroughs London NW4 4BT (tel: �� 44 (0)20 8411 4804 e-mail: email@example.com) Richenda Gambles, University of Oxford, Barnett House, 32 Wellington Square, Oxford, OX1 2ER, UK (tel: �� 44 (0)1865 270343 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) Rhona Rapoport, 34 Prince Albert Road, London NW8 7LX, UK (tel: �� 44 (0)20 7586 1931 e-mail: email@example.com). Int. J. of Human Resource Management 18:3 March 2007 360���373
experience a fast pace of change resulting in more demanding intensified working practices and environments (White et al., 2003). This engenders feelings of pressure, lack of time and general ���busyness��� (Gambles et al., 2006 Lewis, 2003), sometimes signified by metaphors about time such as ���the time squeeze��� or ���time famine��� (Hewitt, 1993 Hochschild, 1989). These pressures and associated metaphors have been variously attributed to new forms of work and working patterns, or the lure of consumerism and accumulation (Beem, 2005 Bunting, 2004) that engender a feeling of work and non- work ���imbalance��� (Guest, 2002). WLB appears to capture a widely felt need to prevent paid work from invading too much into people���s lives. As social trends enter collective consciousness and are reflected upon, patterns of change are surfaced, constructed and labelled. What were initially experienced as individual problems become relabelled as shared problems although not necessarily as social problems requiring social, collective solutions (Caproni, 2004). But language does not simply reflect reality. It also creates and produces meaning, understanding and experiences (Wetherell et al., 2001). So while it has become legitimate to talk about having problems of WLB, the way this is conceptualized is shaped by wider messages and assumptions within current WLB discourses. We argue that the WLB discourse has emerged in response to current pressures, but that it fails to focus on the broader systemic issues that these changes raise. Thus while reflecting particular pressures, the WLB discourse simultaneously creates and produces particular WLB experiences and tensions.1 The WLB discourse can be located not only historically but also culturally. The debates and concerns are experienced differently in various national contexts and at different times. For example, there was more concern about employed mothers in countries with traditional gender values and a history of ���the housewife��� than in countries where it was the norm for women across the social spectrum to be employed (Lewis et al., 1992). Similarly, it is no coincidence that the WLB discourse originated in neoliberal contexts, particularly the USA and UK, with a focus in policy and practice on enhancing competitiveness through minimal regulation and reliance on market forces and where the experience of imbalance between paid work and the rest of life were strongest (see Fleetwood, this issue). A critical approach to ���WLB��� discourses and associated practices A critique of work���life balance discourses is important because language constrains questions asked and solutions sought. There are currently at least two discernable, overlapping but distinct, WLB discourses. One focuses on relatively affluent professional and white collar workers ��� both men and women ��� especially in the knowledge economy, who have difficulty in finding time for personal life because of the all encompassing nature of many contemporary forms of work. It focuses on choice and personal, or sometimes household, responsibility for ���getting the balance right��� (Caproni, 2004 Lewis, 2003). We refer to this as the personal control of time WLB discourse, which focuses at the individual (or family) level rather than on the need for organizational or wider socio-economic change. The other discourse focuses on flexibility in working arrangements and we refer to this as the workplace flexibility WLB discourse. WLB is often regarded as a characteristic of workplaces, indicated by the existence of WLB policies (but not necessarily implementation) or by employees��� perceptions of WLB support articulated in terms of policies available. Thus, for example, Bloom et al. (2006: 5) talk of ���firms with good WLB��� and a poor or strong ���WLB strategy���. Both discourses incorporate a choice dimension and both obscure structural Lewis et al.: The constraints of a ���work���life balance��� 361
and relational constraints, which we argue is one of the major flaws of the WLB approach. The personal control of time discourse implies human agency and choice to, for example, work harder and longer or to prioritize different aspects of life, and personal responsibility for achieving ���balance���, overlooking structural, cultural and practical constraints (Caproni, 2004). Flexibility discourses position WLB as providing choices for those with non-work (mainly family) commitments, with more focus on workplaces, but again overlooks constraints of gender, workplace culture, norms and assumptions. There is a danger that the construct/metaphor of WLB, because it resonates so widely, becomes reified. The language used to talk about combining paid work with other parts of life is crucial and oversimplification limits perceived responses, including actual range of policy developments and day-to-day practices. This often results in ���quick fix��� solutions that leave the basic underpinnings of work���personal life problems untouched (Gambles et al., 2006 Smithson and Stokoe, 2005). It can set a linguistic/conceptual trap (Nicolini and Mezner, 1995) which limits wider comprehension of the phenomenon and particularly the origins of the issues, obscuring the potential to open up new visions or alternative futures. A number of critiques of the WLB discourse/s and approach, the ���hype��� surrounding it and the issues that it obscures have begun to surface (Beem, 2005 Caproni, 2004 Crompton et al., forthcoming Gambles et al., 2006 Smithson and Stokoe, 2005), particularly in European and North American contexts. In the remainder of this paper we examine discourses of WLB and their implications. A social constructionist approach encourages questions about the repercussions of this discourse: who gains, who is damaged, who is silenced, what traditions are sustained and which are undermined and what futures created (Gergen, 1999). Specifically, we examine: i) taken-for-granted assumptions that underpin the WLB discourse ii) the version of reality that it promotes iii) the interests that are being served by this version of reality, and iv) begin to reflect on alternative discourse. We have argued that the rise of the WLB discourse reflects changes in the nature of work and workplaces that are related to global competition and trends. This points to the importance of an international perspective on WLB which has the potential to question Anglo-centric taken-for-granted assumptions embedded in the WLB discourses and explore the breadth or limitations of the concept in a range of contexts. Our critique is informed and illustrated by qualitative data from an international study exploring debates about paid work and connections with other parts of life in seven countries. We describe this below. The study The study, supported by a grant from the Ford Foundation,2 was intended to stimulate a ���think��� piece about gender equity in relation to challenges of combining paid work with other parts of life, in various societies, using an exploratory, evolutionary framework. The seven countries, India, Japan, South Africa, the US, the Netherlands, Norway and the UK were selected to include different types of welfare provisions, diverse histories and approaches to work���personal life issues and countries at various stages of economic development. Country meetings were organized and convened by local colleagues to explore the experiences, perspectives and reflections of a range of ���experts��� connected with issues about combining paid work with other parts of life including: academics and researchers politicians and policy makers people working at various levels in formal workplace organizations, including public, private and NGOs external consultants trade union officials and journalists. The meetings generated public accounts and discussions of work���personal life dilemmas and perspectives on associated debates within national 362 The International Journal of Human Resource Management