What is Work-Family Balance, Anyway?

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name” – Confucius

After a vacation week at Disney, FWF blog is back for 2013
After a vacation week at Disney, FWF blog is back for 2013

Since starting this blog, I’ve been writing 2000 words a week on the general theme of work-family balance.  Before that, I published several academic journal articles and a dissertation about work-family balance (my cv here). You would think this would make the concept of work-family balance very clear to me. However, “balance” is exquisitely difficult to precisely define.

It is easier to define what work-family balance is not. I can confidently say it is not:

  • Spending equal time on work and family demands
  • Spending as much time as needed for full success in both work and family roles
  • Having it all

The best definition I ever came across is “the extent to which individuals are equally involved in, and equally satisfied with, their work role and their family role” (Greenhaus & Singh, 2003). I heart this definition because:

  • It does not concern itself with time spent on both roles- it focuses instead on involvement and satisfaction. Such a flexible definition is useful because it means there are many ways to achieve something approaching balance
  • It doesn’t set up the false dichotomy of “family = good”, “work = bad”
  • It does not assert that the two roles are necessarily in opposition or should be fully separated from each other
  • It implies that one can achieve some level of success in both roles, and that involvement and satisfaction reinforce each other (the more involved a dad you are, you’ll be more satisfied; the more emotionally invested in work/career you are, the more satisfied you tend to be). Work and family compete for your time, but caring about both can lead to a more satisfying life.
  • At the same time, it does not assert that balance means having it all or doing it all.  Being involved and satisfied is enough; being Superman is too high an expectation

Thanks to Mark P- in his great comment below, he noted that the word “equal” in the above definition is problematic. I agree. Perhaps “sufficient” is better? Any ideas?

I’d love to hear your definitions of work-family balance- serious, humorous or otherwise. Maybe we can crowdsource a definition together. Let’s get your suggestions in the comments section.

16 thoughts on “What is Work-Family Balance, Anyway?

  1. I like Greenhaus & Singh’s definition except for the “equally involved in” part. For some people, being equally involved in both work and family is not desirable. In Hochschild’s “The Time Bind” she relates how some workers find more fulfillment in their work roles, where they have a direct sense of achievement and they receive tangible rewards. So I suppose I see work-family balance as the extent to which people are satisfied with both realms, to whatever extent they choose to be involved or engaged in each pursuit. If an individual is satisfied with a very low level of family involvement, he may perceive a high degree of work-family balance (although observers — or his wife — may disagree). Having said that, I prefer the term “work-life balance” because it includes pursuits outside of work and family, such as leisure activities, volunteering, travel, and reading for pleasure.

    • Oh, an I disgree with work-life balance- it implies that work is not a part of one’s life when it is actually the #1 oe #2 role most people have in their lives. Don’t get me started on these academic semantic discussions, you’ll never shut me up.

  2. Very refreshing point of view – thanks for another great article. I hope other women read and follow your website, as your insights certainly apply to more than just fathers.

    • Thanks for reading and for the comment. While I focus on dad’s work-family issues (many others focus implictly or explicitly on women’s work-family issues), a lot of what I write does seem to resonate with women, too. Perhaps we’re not so different after all. I don’t have a statistical breakdown of my readership by gender, but anecdotally, it seems that about 30% are women. (if I could have been this popular with women back in high school and college!)

  3. Might the definition be improved by changing “equally involved” to “equally invested?” I understand the tension that “equally involved” may bring (it has the implication of something like equal time spent). Perhaps something like “equally invested” that captures the sense of feeling that the roles are equally important (equally valued as part of one’s identity) would be more agreeable…

    Also, I think Mark P opens a whole new discussion by bringing perspective into play. It’s absolutely true that a father/husband may feel he has achieved balance while his wife (and/or child and/or employer!) may not. I couldn’t begin to answer the question from a broader perspective, however (e.g. something that considers the entire family unit, the employer, society, etc.).

    • I like “invested” over “involved”, but am still not sure about “equal”

      And, Ernie, you make a FANTASTIC point about looking at this from a whole family perspective! This is hard to do, but really is the crux of the matter.

      Thanks for reading and your insightful comment.

    • Excellent point. Fluidity is both my greatest asset in balancing work and family (work flexibility, etc.), but also a great challenge (when my wife’s work gets heavy).

      This is also why, in my professional work, I have always advocated for work flexibility as opposed to formal “work-family balance schedules” and the like. As one writer once said, we need “less rigid forms of flexibility”

      Thanks for the great comment.

  4. Hi there, i’m not a Dad but I am working on putting together a pack for potential and new Dad’s to give them support and information that helps them integrate work and life. Do you have any tips on what would be useful to include and what you would have liked someone to tell you before you became a Dad???

    • Hi Fiona. Thanks for reading and for the comment. To our question- I have some ideas, but nothing too specific at this point. I’d be happy to discuss this with you, just email me. You also gave me a great idea for some future blog posts. You may also want to check out Boston College’s center for work and family survey of working dads- they have some great information.

  5. Yes the semantic discussions are endless! My concern with the term “work-family balance” is that it seems to imply that only those with families have a need for balance. This perspective has been promoted in many work situations that I have witnessed or heard about. For example, at a previous employer one of the VPs said that only candidates without families were “appropriate” for the demanding job of product manager because they have “no reason to go home.” Recently a friend told me that everyone at his company was required to attend a work dinner, “except of course parents with young children.” I think this viewpoint is very dangerous.

    • I hear you. I just don’t agree we should separate work from life- work is most people’s #1 or #2 life role. I would say, from a semantic point of view “work non-work” balance is the broadest category. Within that is work-family or work-vonuteerism” “work-leisure” etc.

  6. Please do not take the following post as being contentious but does the topic of work-life balance merit 9 journal articles. With all the global and national problems we have in the U.S., climate change, unemployment, health care, class and racial problems, Arab-Islamophobia–within the educational sector alone the dominant hiring pattern of universities to employ adjunct professors than tenure track, I hold a BA in psychology and I am respectful of topics in industrial psychology, I also have a PhD in intercultural and urban higher education. As I am a divorced single woman without children, the topic has no interest for me, but I can speak from my sister, who is a well known scholar/professor emeritus and her husband, also a professor, I am sure the topic occupied some of their conversation with each other, but the majority of the time they just worked it out with very little tension.
    Frankly, given the current unemployment situation in the U.S. the partner or in dire circumstances partners do not have a job, there is not much balancing to do, it is called hustling to put bacon on the table.

    • I hear what you are saying, but your argument strikes me as the same one animal rights/care volunteers hear all the time: “there are abused children in the world, how could you devote time to abused animals?”.

      There are very many problems in the world that need attention. I chose this path, I’m sure you chose yours for a reason, too.

      I care deeply about this issue as I see the intersection of work and family (most folks’ 2 central life roles) can really enhance one’s life, or can tear families apart.

      But one of the reasons I am writing the blog is to speak more directly to dads, as opposed to very indirectly through academic work.

      Thanks for reading, and for your comment.

      Scott J. Behson, Ph.D.
      Associate Professor of Management
      Fairleigh Dickinson University
      201-692-7233 (work)

      Sent on the Sprint® Now Network from my BlackBerry®

  7. Scott, thank you for you reply. Curiously I am an animal activist. There has been studies, predominantly in the UK, linking domestic violence with animal abuse. Because I have devoted my time to assist in mental health work and education in one of the worst conflict zones on the planet–have visited a few in the last 4 years– I tend to focus research wise and in practice on the global forces, US being one of them that trickles down to causing dysfunction in the family. I have worked with refugees abroad and in the US and occupation, war and sanctions as a macro influence have contributed to dysfunction in the family.

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