Role of managers in facilitating work–life balance

A recent research paper by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions concludes that the continued dominance of a working culture characterised by long hours and ‘presenteeism’ runs counter to attempts to achieve work–life balance. In such a climate, work–life balance arrangements are not seen as compatible with management roles. Furthermore, there is a lack of managerial role models willing to display any contrary behaviour and a fear of alternative working patterns.

The Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) published a research paper in 2009, exploring the role of managers in relation to work-life balance policies. The study is entitled Living to work or working to live? The role of managers in creating work–life balance in Ireland (181Kb PDF).

About the study


The objectives of the research paper are to:

  • identify how managers negotiate and understand work–life balance;
  • examine the role that formal and informal policies play;
  • explore the role of managers in facilitating work–life balance within Irish organisations.

The study notes that managers have the power to either promote or discourage work–life balance policies in their sections or organisations. Current research lacks a specific focus on managers’ role in facilitating work–life balance. Within the management team, besides being responsible for the overall creation of work–life balance arrangements, lower-level managers are typically the gatekeepers of such arrangements and are responsible for the allocation of work–life balance policies within the organisation.

Research methodology

The findings of the research are based on responses by human resources (HR) directors and managers, obtained through one-to-one taped interviews in four organisations. The research was undertaken between January and May 2007 and concerns the following companies:

  • one private manufacturing company in Dublin and Cork – two interviews;
  • one public utility company operating throughout Ireland – two interviews;
  • two regional public sector organisations in northwest Ireland – four interviews.

The interviews explored the following questions.

  • How is work–life balance defined?
  • Are there any differences between Dublin and regional parts of Ireland with respect to work–life balance?
  • What is the personal take-up of work–life balance arrangements like?
  • Are there managers who avail of work–life balance arrangements?
  • Who should get priority with regard to gender or family status?
  • How are the workplace procedures implemented – formally or informally?
  • How are policies or procedures communicated?
  • What is the prevailing workplace culture?
  • What is management’s role in promoting work–life balance?

Main findings

Attitude to take-up of work–life balance arrangements

In terms of the most important findings, interviewees were asked to describe the workplace response to work–life balance take-up – for example, regarding the take-up of parental leave or job-sharing arrangements. More specifically, the respondents were asked whether there was any kind of penalty for those who avail of such arrangements. The opinions of HR managers varied in this respect. Some opinions were very positive. However, other HR managers stated that work–life balance was a personal affair, and that it had no real relevance to their HR role, since what staff did outside of the workplace was their own personal business.

Formal versus informal arrangements

Another important issue was that organisations have traditionally relied on informal flexibility, such as ‘time off in lieu’. The HR managers were asked about their preference for formal as opposed to informal work–life balance arrangements. Recognising the important and spontaneous nature of informal arrangements, one HR director believed that they could only work in limited circumstances, after which formal procedures would have to apply.

Phenomenon of ‘presenteeism’

The HR managers were asked to describe the level of work–life balance associated with themselves and managers above and/or below them in the organisation. One HR director felt that senior management has been constrained to conform to ‘presenteeism’ – a phenomenon whereby employees work long hours but with lower productivity or poor functioning capacity due to medical or other personal problems. Working outside the traditional ‘presenteeism’ system remains the exception among senior managers and was more common among women located in female-dominated areas. The exception to this was teleworking, which enabled a few senior male managers to work from home on a limited basis.

Problems related to work–life balance arrangements

Managers’ views were sought on whether they believed that having staff availing of work–life balance arrangements made it unfair to others who did not. The interviewees referred to problems of availability and the negative impact that take-up or lack of availability could have on other staff.

Overall, the most important finding to arise from the research was the existence of a culture that runs counter to attempts to achieve work–life balance. This culture is characterised by long working hours and a focus on being seen to be present. The study shows that these work patterns are not conducive to work–life balance – not just for parents of young children but for all employees. In such a climate, seeking work–life balance arrangements – such as working from home or working reduced hours or flexitime – are not seen as compatible with holding management posts.

Policy recommendations

In view of the research findings, the concluding section of the ICTU study sets out some recommendations for work–life balance strategies that might be used by organisations, including the following:

  • establishing and disseminating good practice – a clear message that emerged from the interviews with managers is the need for leadership from the top HR directors and managers demonstrating their acceptance of work–life balance arrangements, without penalty, for all employees including senior managers. Campaigns promoting work–life balance are needed to remove the prevailing negative perceptions of such arrangements;
  • reviewing work–life balance policies and practice – in particular, work–life balance needs to be marketed in a gender-neutral way that will appeal to men as well as women;
  • challenging the prevalence of long hours – mechanisms to address this would include reducing the number of, and time allotted to, meetings;
  • create an organisational and national culture of work–life balance – most of the managers who participated in the study supported the need for a culture change that departs from the prevailing reliance on ‘presenteeism’ to one which places an emphasis on performance results or outcomes.

Tony Dobbins, NUI Galway




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