Work-Life balance Theories: A Critical Analysis

Nine Dominant theories of the Relationship

What is Work-life Interface?

The work-life interface is the intersection of work and personal life. There are many aspects of one's personal life that can intersect with work including family, leisure, and health. The work-life interface is bidirectional; for instance, work can interfere with private life, and private life can interfere with work. This interface can be adverse in nature (e.g., work-life conflict) or can be beneficial (e.g., work-life enrichment) in nature (Greenhaus, J. H., & Allen, T. D. (2011). Recent research has shown that the work-life interface is becoming increasingly boundaryless, especially for technology-enabled workers. Work-life balance is the equilibrium between personal life and career work.

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Dominant theories of the Relationship

Several theories explain different aspects of the relationship between work and family life. Boundary theory and border theory are the two fundamental theories that researchers have used to study these role conflicts. Other theories are built on the foundations of these two theories. In the two decades since boundary theory and border theory was first proposed, the rise of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) has drastically altered the work-life interface (Chan, Xi Wen; Field, Justin Craig (2018). Work can now be completed at any time and in any location, meaning that domains are more likely to be blended and boundaries barely exist. (Chan, Xi Wen; Field, Justin Craig (2018).

Seven dominant theories have been utilized to explain this relationship on the boundary-border spectrum; These theories are structural functioning, segmentation, compensation, supplemental and reactive compensation, role enhancement, spillover, and work enrichment model (Lavassani, K. M., & Movahedi, P. (2014)

The intersection of work and life research is fundamentally challenged by a lack of commonly established basic language and key constructs; no single prevailing framework or perspective is universally established (Pitt-Catsouphes et al., 2006). The academic body of knowledge regarding work-life relationships relies on a multiplicity of theoretical frameworks (Morris and Madsen, 2007), which include spill-over, compensation, resource drain, enrichment, congruence, work-family conflict, segmentation, facilitation, integration, and ecology theories (Clark, 2000; Edwards and Rothbard, 2000; Frone, 2003; Frone, Russell and Cooper, 1992; Greenhaus and Powell, 2006; Zedeck and Mosier, 1990). 

Spill-over Theory

Spill-over is a process whereby experiences in one role affect experiences in the other, rendering the roles more alike. Research has examined the spill-over of mood, values, skills and behaviours from one role to another (Edwards and Rothbard, 2000), although most of this research has focused on mood spill-over. The experiences resulting from spill-over can manifest themselves as either positive or negative (Morris and Madsen, 2007). In the literature, spill-over has also been termed as a generalization, isomorphism, continuation, extension, familiarity, and similarity (Edwards and Rothbard, 2000; Staines, 1980; Zedeck, 1992). There are two interpretations of spill-over (Edwards and Rothbard, 2000): (a) the positive association between life and work satisfaction and life and work values (Zedeck, 1992) and (b) transference in the entirety of skills and behaviours between domains (Repetti, 1987) such as when fatigue from work is experienced at home or when family demands interfere with work demands. In a study of spill-over, Williams and Alliger (1994) used experience sampling methodology to examine mood-related spillover on a daily basis, finding suggested that working parents in their sample were more likely to bring work-related emotions home than they were to transfer family-related emotions to the workplace. 


Compensation Theory

Compensation theory refers to the efforts intended at countering negative experiences in one domain through increased efforts for positive experiences in another domain. An example would be a dissatisfied worker focusing more on family than work, thus reallocating human resources (Edwards and Rothbard, 2000). According to Zedeck and Mosier (1990), compensation can be viewed in two broad categories: supplemental and reactive. Supplemental compensation happens when positive experiences are insufficient at work and are therefore pursued at home. Reactive compensation occurs when negative work experiences are made up for in positive home experiences (Zedeck and Mosier). In other words, according to compensation theory, there is an opposite relationship between work and life, so workers attempt to satisfy voids from one domain with satisfactions from the other (Clark, 2000). Tenbrunsel et al., (1995) also found a compensatory relationship between work and life roles for employed. Whereas Rothbard (2001) avert that women who experienced a negative effect from family were more engaged with their work, consistent with a compensation story. 

Resource drain Theory

Resource drain theory refers to the transfer of resources from one domain to another; because resources are limited (time, money, and attention), available resources in the original domain are reduced (Morris and Madsen, 2007). Resources can also be shifted to other domains that are not working and family-related, such as community or personal pursuits (Edwards and Rothbard, 2000). 


Enrichment Theory

Enrichment theory refers to the degree to which experiences from instrumental sources (skills, abilities, values) or effective sources (mood, satisfaction) improves the quality of the other domain (Morris and Madsen, 2007). Greenhaus and Powell (2006) defined enrichment as "the extent to which experiences in one role improve the quality of life in the other role" (p. 73) and reported that employees perceive that their work and life roles enrich each other. Zedeck and Mosier (1990) used the term instrumental to characterize this notion, which states that good work outcomes lead to good life outcomes and vice versa. 

Congruence Theory

Congruence theory refers to how additional variables that are not directly related to work or family influence the balance of multiple roles. While spillover is a direct relationship between work and family, congruence attributes similarity through a third variable, like personality traits, behavioural styles, genetic forces, and socio-cultural forces (Edwards and Rothbard, 2000; Staines, 1980; Zedeck, 1992). Based on congruence theory, a third variable such as intelligence or level of education could positively affect both work and life domains.

Segmentation Theory

Segmentation theory refers to viewing work and life as separate domains that do not influence each other (Edwards and Rothbard, 2000). Segmentation has been used to describe the separation of work and life, such that the two roles do not influence each other (Edwards and Rothband, 2000; Staines, 1980; Zedeck, 1992). Since the industrial revolution, work and life have been inherently separate by time, space, and function. Piotrkowski (1979) expressed this process as what occurs when people actively suppress work-related thoughts, feelings, and behaviours in the life domain, and vice versa. As this has been proven no longer to be true (Kanter, 1977) and conceivably never was, particularly for female workers, segmentation is now referred to as the active process that people use to form and maintain boundaries between work and family. The literature also suggests the usage of the terms compartmentalization, independence, separateness, disengagement and neutrality to describe this theory (Edwards and Rothbard, 2000). Piotrkowski (1979) averts that some people may actively suppress work-related thoughts, feelings and behaviours while at home, and vice versa. 


Facilitation Theory

Facilitation theory refers to what occurs when participation in one domain cultivates and enhances engagement in another domain. This portability of augmentation can comprise skills, experiences, resources, and knowledge (Edwards and Rothbard, 2000). Grzywacz (2002), facilitation occurs because social systems naturally utilize available means to improve situations without regard for domain limitations. Integration: Integration theory refers to the holistic view that a healthy system of flexible and permeable boundaries can better facilitate and encourage work-life and community-life domains (Clark, 2000). Morris and Madsen (2007) acknowledged that integration theory best portrays the incorporation of additional contextual elements, such as community, into the body of knowledge in regard to work and life. Integration calls for contemporary understandings that retool traditional work-life paradigms, making all stakeholders (employers, workers, and communities) active partners with equal voices in the formation of a holistic model of work-life balance (Morris and Madsen, 2007). Googins (1997) believed that an approach to work and family that includes all parties and shared responsibility will yield better results in both domains than solutions shaped in isolation.

Ecology Theory

Ecological systems theory refers to the suggestion that work and life are a joint function of process, person, context, and time characteristics, and symptomatic of the fact that each and multiple characteristics yield an additive effect on the work-life experience (Grzywacz and Marks, 2000). Ecology theory was later developed into the person-in-environment theory with the common thread among diverse person-environment variants as the recognition that individuals and groups have vibrant relationships with their social, physical, and natural environments (Pitt-Catsouphes et al., 2006). 


Inter-role conflict Theory

Inter-role conflict theory refers to what occurs when meeting the demands in one domain make it difficult to meet the demands in the other domain (Greenhaus and Beutell, 1985). In the literature, this has also been termed the opposition or incompatibility theory (Edwards and Rothbard, 2000). Greenhaus and Beutell (1985) avert that an individual encounters role conflict when the sent expectations or demands from one role interfere with the individual’s capacity to meet the sent expectations or demands from another role (Kahn et al., 1964; Katz and Kahn, 1966; Metron, 1957). An example of role conflict is that of an employee who is at the same time-pressured to work overtime while family members urge that employee to come home. Greenhaus and Beutell (1985) described eight propositions where the constructs are in conflict in relation to time, role strain, and specific behaviour, as follow: pressures must come from both work and family; self-identification with roles is necessary; role salience moderates relationships and is positively related to conflict level; conflict is strongest when there are negatives associated with non-compliance; directionality is based on conflict source; conflict is related to career success and stage; external support is related to the conflict.

Source: Rincey, V. M., & Panchanatham, N. (2014). Work-Life Balance: A Short Review of the Theoretical and Contemporary Concepts. Continental J. Social Sciences7(1), 1-24.


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