Work-life balance - the challenge for line managers and HR

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The role of line managers and HR is particularly crucial when developing and sustaining a work-life balance culture. In this feature, Claire McCartney, Researcher at Roffey Park, offers guidance on effective work-life balance practices and highlights examples of different initiatives that have been implemented in organisations.

The issue of work-life balance, rarely discussed as an organisational concern before the mid-1990s, has recently risen up many corporate agendas as a critical area for action. A range of social, economic and business factors mean that work-life balance is now an increasingly important issue for a large proportion of employees, organisations and for the economy at large.

A new handbook by Roffey Park entitled Work-Life Balance: A Guide for Organisations, suggests that a number of different groups within the organisation are responsible for developing and sustaining a work-life balance culture but the role of line managers and HR is particularly crucial. A number of effective managerial work-life balance practices can be drawn from our research findings, namely:

Develop open lines of communication

Create an environment within your team where employees feel able to approach you about not only work-related issues but also personal issues and work-life balance needs if they arise. Developing open lines of communication is particularly crucial if you are a manager of employees on flexible or home-based contracts who could potentially feel very isolated from the organisation.

Ford Europe actively encourages managers to discuss work-life arrangements on a one-to-one basis with their team. This is a two-way process – an employee can raise an issue or a manager can raise an issue if an employee feels awkward – to prompt a discussion about balance.

Understand the issues faced by each employee

It is important to understand that when it comes to work-life balance there is no "one size fits all" model. Employees are unique and have very different needs that change at different stages of their lives. Take time to learn about your team members’ personal circumstances – this will enable you to grasp if someone has a genuine need and to address any problems that arise.

At Penna Consulting, managers have considerable autonomy in how they manage the work-life balance of their teams but at the time of the research there were no formal work-life balance policies. When asked if they would like to see such policies in place, managers expressed a need for general guidelines but were wary about possible policies that would be prescriptive and therefore limit their freedom to make their own, situation specific decisions regarding individual employees.

Role model

Role modelling can actually be a very effective tool for demonstrating an organisation’s commitment to work-life balance and at the same time if a manager is seen to role model work-life balance values it reinforces the message that individuals can progress within the organisation even when they make choices that support balance.

At PricewaterhouseCoopers, examples of senior managers who model work-life balance values are detailed on the firm’s dedicated work-life balance intranet site. This sends out a strong message to employees and acts to dispel the myth that if you work flexibly or part-time then your promotion prospects suffer.

Demonstrate genuine concern, empathy and trust in employees

A good work-life balance manager will affirm the importance of employees’ balance needs, and exhibit a sincere attitude of caring towards employees. As a manager you need to have the capacity to empathise with employees and recognise that having personal needs does not prohibit an employee from having strong loyalty to the organisation and being motivated to perform well. Employees tend to respond to caring managers with considerable loyalty and a willingness to put in extra effort and time when required. However, remember employees are quick to recognise insincerity - an insincere display of caring is likely to do more harm than good.

Facilitate and empower

Finally, it is important to recognise that work-life balance is actually a joint organisation-employee responsibility. It is your responsibility as a manager to ensure that you put the conditions in place to facilitate work-life balance and empower individuals - then it is down to the individuals to take responsibility for their own work-life balance. Many of the conditions that you need to put in place are specifically related to ensuring manageable workloads; setting clear and realistic plans, shifting workloads amongst team members, pushing back up the chain of command when necessary and redefining deadlines as conditions change.

At BT, managers sit down with their teams and talk about outputs – they don’t micro-manage or talk about the detail of how that will be achieved. It is then up to the team to decide how they can achieve those outputs for themselves.

The role of HR

HR and training departments have an equally pivotal role to play in supporting work-life balance through the introduction of imaginative and appropriate policies and guidelines and by creating training programmes to support and empower managers and ultimately employees in their quest for work-life balance. Detailed below is an HR actions checklist taken from Roffey Park’s new work-life balance guide:


  • Survey your people - find out if there are any issues, where the ‘hot’ spots are and what the organisation can provide to help individuals be more productive and enable them to balance their work and personal needs.

  • Implement imaginative policies and initiatives within the constraints of the business - look for best practice in similar sectors to draw upon.

  • Make all of your work-life balance policies and practices as inclusive as possible - this will avoid alienation. Group policies together into one central resource so that they are more widely accessible to staff.

  • Monitor the impact of policies and initiatives - ask for feedback on what you already offer, get employees to assess its effectiveness and comment about how it could be improved.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate - you need to do this consistently throughout the organisation.

  • Consider other ways of raising the profile of work-life balance within your organisation - use events such as work-life balance week and in-company conferences to remind employees just what is on offer.

  • Produce guidelines for managers - with flexibility built-in to apply to different team members with different work-life balance needs.

  • Offer managers and employees support in the form of training and development around work-life balance - such as work-life balance workshops, soft skills development, workload planning and scheduling and flexible working skills.

The new handbook Work-life balance: A Guide for Organisations, by Claire McCartney, can be purchased online (priced £20) and downloaded from Roffey Park’s website. For more details, call Pauline Hinds on 01293 851644 or mailto:[email protected]


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