Making Work-Life Balance Policies Actually Work

6 mins

Organisations can improve the work-life balance of their employees by training line man...

Organisations can improve the work-life balance of their employees by training line managers in work-life support.This training reduces burnout in employees who have little control of when or where they work and increases family engagement of employees who have high work-life flexibility. Surprisingly, work-life support training of line managers does not increase employee engagement, a new study found.

Work-life flexibility is the ability to manage where and when one works. The ability to manage where one works is about having boundary control over work and personal life, while the ability to manage when one works is about having control over the work schedule. 

Work-life flexibility is valuable for helping employees meet simultaneous work and home demands - their work-life balance. However, according to a study published recently in Human Resource Management (HRM), the successful implementation of a work-life balance policy in organisations has been affected by two key issues. One is that most organisations tend to believe that they can do little on the work-life flexibility front for employees whose jobs are designed with limited work-life flexibility - the so-called work-life flexibility “have nots”, for example, frontline workers. Yet these individuals are susceptible to burnout due to the low control they have over boundaries and schedules. The second issue is that employees with greater access to work-life flexibility - the so-called work-life flexibility “haves” - often do not take advantage of their flexibility to engage more fully in their work and family roles. This could be due to a lack of employee awareness about the work-life flexibility support provided by the organisation and concerns by career-oriented employees about its possible negative consequences for their career advancement.

“The issue of flexibility and work-life support is something that organisations have thought about for a long time. And we saw during Covid that organisations did become more flexible, particularly for people who could control where and when they work. But still, we didn’t do very much for people that were frontline workers. And now, post pandemic, a lot of companies think that they can’t do anything for people that don’t have schedule or boundary control, such as janitors, secretaries, nurses, and police. At the same time, for workers that have that access to flexibility, we've seen calls back to the office. There’s always been kind of a career stigma to using flexibility for personal needs. So these are dilemmas that organisations have, and this study digs deeper into how to improve the implementation of the work-life policies organisations have and think about how these policies might vary in effectiveness according to the job context - how can you really create work-life supportive context for people in different jobs with different job characteristics and leader support”, said Ellen Ernst Kossek, the lead author of the study and the Basil S. Turner Distinguished Professor of Management at Purdue University, USA.

Organisations often assume that it is sufficient to merely offer work-life flexibility to facilitate better work engagement. However, according to Kossek, what often gets overlooked is that people have different demands from their jobs but also in their family life.

“Looking at what we can do to improve people’s lives depending on their job is so important. Today many organisations offer lip service to work-life issues. They put in work-life policies, don’t train people, and forget about job design matters. But people have different needs depending on what they have to do in their job. You know, professors have to write papers or work at home, to have quiet time but still be available. And people who are on site, say at a university, which is where our study was done, have to be there to work with students and clients. Once you offer a work-life balance policy or think about how to create a work-life supportive organisation, it is important to also look at people’s different job demands and constraints. Maybe we need to customise our approach a bit. There are some jobs where you have to be on site and yet you could hopefully go home and be able to disconnect. There are also jobs where people, such as professors for example, may have trouble disconnecting. So this is a dilemma - how do we make the workplace work for everybody?”, said Kossek.

The study posited that the training of line managers in work-life support will promote a work-life supportive context and as such will be key to providing solutions to the issues that organisations face in supporting employee work-life balance. Using a year-long randomised field experiment at a large public research university, the study found that for individuals with little control over boundaries and schedules, having a line manager who is trained in work-life support reduces emotional exhaustion - a key component of burnout. So, contrary to the widespread belief, the study shows that even for employees occupying jobs designed with less work-life flexibility, organisations can take action to create a more supportive work-life context, which helps to mitigate employee burnout.

“To me, this is really important because for a lot of people, improving their job context by training leaders to think more about flexibility and be more supportive is the first step towards their well-being. It was interesting to see you can help people feel emotionally better in terms of emotional exhaustion because in the work-life literature, we conflate support for the family role and support for the person’s well-being. So this is a first step toward bringing people up to a starting line, because if you're in an inflexible job without control, you're not even able to give time to your family”, said Kossek. 

In addition, the study found that having a line manager trained in work-life support encourages those with greater work-life flexibility to take advantage of work-life balance policies and increases family engagement of these employees: “If they were in a work group where their leader received training, people that did have control over boundaries were able to give more time to their family. Maybe they felt freer to go to children’s activities and invest in caring for their family. So you can have flexibility policies, but unless leaders are also trained in promoting them, people may or may not use that flexibility to support their family”, said Kossek.

The study thus shows that organisations can benefit from training line managers in how to provide work-life support. This training promotes a work-life supportive context that is likely to positively impact employees, but in different ways, depending on the degree of their work-life flexibility. 

“Companies don’t invest enough in training leaders to see this as part of their job. Just some attention to having leaders think about this is important. For example, doing 45 minutes or so of training of leaders to think about how to be more supportive to others and also when it comes to their own lives. I’d like to see us really look at work-life support as a core job characteristic for organisations and also something that’s a core part of what leaders can do”, said Kossek. 

Work-life support training of line managers was not, however, found to enhance employee work engagement, irrespective of employee job access to work-life flexibility.

“This finding was interesting, given that a lot of companies think being flexible will make people more motivated in their job. If organisations could partner with scholars, we might be able to unpack more how the training actually works and what leaders can do to motivate employees”, said Kossek.

Kossek’s co-authors were Caitlin Porter, an Associate Professor of Management at the University of Memphis, USA, Lindsay Mechem Rosokha, a Clinical Assistant Professor in Organizational Behaviour and Human Resources at Purdue University, USA, Kelly Schwind Wilson, a Professor of Management at Purdue University, Deborah E. Rupp, a Professor of Industrial and Organizational Psychology at George Mason University, USA, and Jared Law-Penrose, a Professor of Management, Leadership, and HRM at Le Moyne College, USA.

Contact Ellen Ernst Kossek at

 Read the full article here.


Written by Jelena Petrovic, Knowledge Transfer Editor of HRM and Associate Professor at the University of Southampton Business School,


HRM is a Financial Times Top 50 Business Journal published by Wiley.