Work-Life Balance: The Impact of Policy and Practice on the Human Resource Function

Originally published in IRConcepts Newsletter in Summer 2005, the following IRC® Research was conducted in 2004 to explore the impact of flexible working conditions on individual and organization performance. The topics of stress, wellbeing, and the role of technology suggest that the study findings might further inform post-pandemic conversations about remote and hybrid work, which ultimately come down to the value of increased flexibility in the workplace and related questions of productivity. 

In the summer of 2004, Industrial Relations Counselors (IRC) sponsored ORC Worldwide (an HR consulting firm partially owned by IRC) to conduct a survey of human resource professionals to examine the impact of working hours, technological advances, and other pressures—both work- and family-based—on their health, well-being, and family life and the consequent impact on their organizational commitment. The aim was to establish whether work-life balance initiatives provided a positive climate for flexible working that can translate into improved individual and organizational performance. In this issue of IRConcepts, we present a summary of this research. We believe that it offers important insights into the demanding roles of HR professionals as well as how well-managed flexibility can lead to strategic competitive advantage.

As organizations increasingly become subjected to the forces of globalization, pressure to increase competitiveness and with it the demands on people to serve their businesses with drive and commitment become even stronger. At the forefront of strategic initiatives to improve organizational performance through people is the Human Resource Management (HRM) function. HRM professionals have responsibility for the development and implementation of strategic policy initiatives that promote business growth, while at the same time, they have the knowledge and understanding of the need to treat people as human beings rather than as human capital alone. A balance has to be struck between hard business objectives and the softer human concerns. The home/work interface emerges as a key area. Dedication of people’s lives to their working environment brings pressures to bear on employees and their families. Well known in the literature as work-life balance, the management of this home/work interface is critical for success in today’s modern business world. The balance has to be right—getting it wrong costs business its competitive edge and/or human beings their health.

ORC Worldwide, working jointly with the Association for HR Management in International Organizations (AHRMIO), has conducted a survey of human resource professionals to investigate how they, themselves, juggle the issues of work-life balance and the degree to which employer policies and practices on this issue (usually devised within the HRM function) provide assistance to themselves in managing the potential for conflict that can arise from competing work and family issues.

The Work-Life Balance survey of HR professionals was conducted during the summer of 2004 using ORC’s Dynasurv survey technology. It was sent to selected ORC Network members in Europe and North America as well as to members of AHRMIO. The format was Web-based, enabling participants to access the questions and provide responses at any time. Participants were not required to answer all the questions in one sitting—rather, they were able to address some issues and then return to their input at a later date, with their answers automatically stored in the database on entry. This technology is particularly relevant bearing in mind the nature of the survey topic, as it enabled participants to consider and record their survey responses in the light of other activities and pressures competing for their time.

The survey attracted some 279 responses and, of these, 184 participants returned verified surveys. Of these, 120 respondents (66 percent) were based in Europe and 51 participants (28 percent) were based in North America. Only 7 percent of the participants were based in other regions of the world, as follows: seven respondents were based in Asia (excluding Japan), three in Africa, two in the Middle East and one in Central/South America.

Women composed 60 percent of the survey respondents. Sixty-one percent worked for public organizations (all but three were non-governmental organizations), while 39 percent were in the private sector.

Although it should be recognized that job levels may have been interpreted differently by the participants in the various regions in which the survey was conducted, one third of the participants reported that they were at director/senior management level within their organizations while one quarter were at middle or junior management level. Some 14 percent worked in administrative capacities. A quarter identified themselves as specialists or senior specialists (individual contributors). Almost two thirds of the respondents had worked for their current employer for over five years.

Two thirds of the participants were primary wage earners. Over three quarters were married or living with a partner and almost half of the participants (47 percent) reported that their spouse or partner worked full-time. On average, participants had 1.1 children. Some 40 percent of the participants were aged between 40 and 49 while 32 percent were between the ages of 50 and 59. Twenty percent were between 30 and 39.

In order to interpret the survey results, it is important to understand the background and context of work-life balance. This involves consideration of various issues such as:

  • What work-life balance is…
  • …And who benefits from it?
  • International data and trends in working time
  • The impact of technology on working life
  • Stress at work
  • Wellness and well-being at work
  • Organizational commitment
  • The role and impact of work-life balance policies

Work-life balance has become the current mantra, but for many it is seen as a well-worn phrase that we aspire to—but seldom, if ever, achieve. It is usually associated with flexible working, reductions in working time, and practices that cater to the need to juggle both family and employer demands. However, a broader viewpoint is helpful in understanding the concept and thus how each of us can move from some nirvana to a reality than works for us in practice.

To understand work-life balance, it is important to be aware of the different demands upon us and our personal resources—our time and our energy—that we can deploy to address them. With this awareness, we are able to review and value the choices we have in terms of how we allocate our precious resources. From this we are able to make the choices themselves—and justify the rationale for so doing. Such conscious decision-making provides a sense of control over our actions.

The family-friendly aspect of work-life balance often forms a central plank in discussions on this issue, with the childcare concerns faced, particularly by women with young or school-age children, frequently highlighted. However, this puts too narrow an emphasis on the subject. It is not solely a women’s issue. Men too stand to benefit from work-life balance both as fathers and partners in relationships. With an aging population in which eldercare places increasing concerns and demands upon the working population, maintaining a healthy work-life balance emerges as a positive approach for us all in managing our various social responsibilities. Caregivers of the disabled and those with no dependants but with community commitments also stand to benefit from positive attitudes to work-life balance concerns, as do those who look for time and space for themselves in order to study, travel, or pursue other leisure activities.

It could be argued that everyone potentially benefits from employer actions to promote work-life balance. But, of course, society cannot benefit if the impact on employment prospects is negative. So this raises the issue of whether the promotion of work-life balance initiatives in the workplace might potentially damage business competitiveness, and with it economic growth, employment prospects, and jobs. In order to consider this, it is helpful to start with the international working life picture to assess the nature of the pressure of working hours and the impact of technology on working life.

The US

Data for the US in respect to annual hours worked per person, available from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), indicates relatively little change in the pattern of working time over the past 15 years. In 1990, annual hours in the US averaged around 1,840 and these have fluctuated a little, reaching a peak around 1,850 in 1998 before declining gradually to just over 1,800 in 2002. Interestingly, Canada records a slightly lower working hours picture, at approximately 1,780 hours. Annual working hours in the US are some of the highest in the world. Countries with similarly long work hours include Australia, Argentina, and Iceland. Indeed, working hours in the US represent some of the highest in the ILO’s league of selected developed industrialized economies. Its world map of annual working time highlights countries such as Colombia, Peru, Malaysia, Thailand, and South Korea as some of the few nations recorded in the ILO-publicized data as working longer hours than in the US.


It is not surprising that annual hours are significantly lower, on the whole, in Europe because EU nations are subject to the Working Time Directive that limits working hours to 48 per week. However, there is still significant variation in working time across Europe. Data from EIRO, indicates the statutory maximum working week as being 38 hours in Belgium and 40 hours in Austria, Finland, Spain, and Sweden as well as in Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia, and Slovenia, with the other EU nations recorded as the statutory maximum of 48 hours. “Collectively agreed average working week” data indicates a different picture, with a range of average weekly working hours: 35 in France, 37.7 in Germany, 38 in Italy, 39 in Ireland and 40 in countries such as Greece and Poland. Turning back to the ILO data, which provides annualized figures, there are considerable divergences: Ireland is recorded at around 1,670 annual hours, Italy approximately 1,630, France 1,550, and Germany around 1,450.

In the UK, the Working Time Regulations 1998 (which implemented the Working Time Directive) prescribe a limit of an average of 48 hours a week over a 17-week period for which a worker can be required to work. However, they allow employers to ask their employees to sign to opt out of the 48-hour maximum and thus agree to longer working hours. Surveys have shown that active use is made of this 48 hour opt-out clause: some 22 percent of UK employees work more than 48 hours a week.

Although the statutory and collective agreed hours data presents one view of working time, the usual hours worked in practice shed a different light on the issue. For example, data for the UK indicates that the usual hours worked per week for full-time employees averages 44.9 —the highest in Europe. By contrast, the lowest average for usual hours worked is in France, at 38.2 per week.

Annual Leave

A clearer understanding of working time can be gleaned from studying data on annual paid leave (vacation). The EU Working Time Directive provides for a minimum of 20 days but statutory minima do vary across Europe. For example, the statutory figure is 25 days in Austria, Denmark, France, Luxembourg, and Sweden (according to the Eurostat Labour Survey, 2002). Once again, though, the figures for collectively agreed annual paid leave present a different story. The average EU figure for paid leave is 26.5 days but with a wide range across the various nations. Sweden offers the longest annual paid leave at 33 days, closely followed by the Netherlands with 31.3 days. The figures are 30 days in Denmark, 29.1 in Germany, 25 in France, and 24.5 in the UK.

It may be debated whether shorter weekly working hours has a positive or negative effect—in terms of productivity and economic indicators. France saw the introduction of the 35-hour week in 2000. At the time, productivity increased and unemployment fell. It appeared—on the surface—that improved employee well-being from working shorter hours led to improved performance. Economists were skeptical of this, however. Looking back, it can be seen that productivity gains resulted from renegotiations with employers, rather than improved employee well-being and the fall in unemployment could be attributed to coincidental economic recovery. Today, the French Government is undertaking economic reforms aimed at increasing economic growth and job prospects. There is heavy opposition to the abolition of the 35-hour week and so the intention is for employees to extend their working hours voluntarily beyond 35 per week, via negotiation with their employers.

Technological advance is occurring at an exponential rate. It is hard to think back to the early days when faxes were seen as revolutionary to the speed of business communications. In the early 1980s, technological change was viewed as being both exciting and frightening. Technology was seen as both friend and foe. It was considered positively in helping us to work more quickly and efficiently and thus facilitating the take-up of more leisure time. By contrast, the negative connotations were that machines would replace people and that unemployment would result as computers took over our jobs. Trades unions in the UK, for example, were heavily involved in negotiating new technology agreements with employers as the fears of job losses began to grow.

A Positive or Negative Impact?

There is no doubt that technology has increased the pace of working life. The speed of communications continues to increase and with it the expectation of immediate or near immediate responses. Today, it is still regarded as both facilitator of flexibility and the harbinger of unemployment, in much the same way as a quarter of a century ago. Technology enables us to work more flexibly in terms of both time and place (e.g., in the evenings and weekends, while at home, saving commuting time and allowing the combination of work and leisure) and, indeed, to work while on the move. But at the same time, it provides the fuel for globalization by enabling “off-shoring”—a shift of work away from traditional job holders in locations in developed countries to the burgeoning new economies such as the Indian sub-continent.

Our society operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Reliance on just-in-time production and the growth in the service industry mean that customers expect products and services on demand at times to suit them. As a result, employers who are engaged in producing these goods and services must cope with the pressures of potential 24-hour operations and, as a consequence, their employees must juggle home and work responsibilities to meet employment demands. This becomes ever more complex, as pressures to increase working hours and work intensity continue to rise, supported by technology that speeds up all that we do. According to the CIPD, based in the UK, three out of four people say they are working very hard, indeed as hard as they can and cannot imagine working any harder, while one in five people, including managerial and professional workers, take work home each day. And technology, enabling us to be continually accessible, means there is no escape.

Long working hours are known to affect people’s health and their relationships. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK, for example, notes that there is some evidence that long hours of work can result in stress, physical or mental ill-health. It must be recognized, however, that stress is an individual issue as it refers to each individual’s ability to cope with pressures placed upon him or her. Stress results when the external pressures or load that an individual is subjected to exceed that person’s coping mechanisms. As such, activities, events, and changes in circumstances that may be seen as exciting or challenging to one person, may prove to be unwanted and burdensome pressures that are stressful to others. Although the HSE points to evidence that long hours can lead to physical ill-health conditions and/or mental ill-health associated with stress, it recognizes that how the individual regards the job, the degree of control over it, and the coping mechanisms he or she brings to bear will play an important role in mediating this relationship.

Stress Symptoms

Individuals suffering from stress tend to exhibit behavioral symptoms prior to experiencing ill-health effects. These include irritability, lack of humor, suppressed anger, poor or disturbed sleeping patterns, poor eating habits (eating too much or too little), inability to focus and concentrate on tasks in hand, and feelings of inability to cope, being targeted, and tearfulness. Lack of interest in home life also typically emerges with a lack of balance between time spent with family and the demands of the job, resulting in family conflict. If such behavioral symptoms go unrecognized and are not dealt with, psychosomatic illnesses such migraines, back pain, and frequent minor intestinal illnesses can result. Eventually stress can lead to serious physical ill-health, including heart problems, ulcers, colitis and other intestinal problems, and mental illness such as clinical depression. A direct link between stress-related ill-health and long working hours may not be clear but research has indicated that those workers who have some form of control over their working environment tend to suffer less stress-related ill-health, with clear implications for the concept of work-life balance.

Employee welfare provides the bedrock from which Human Resource Management has developed. The strategic focus within HRM today continues to reflect this issue with “wellness management” and “well-being” as important topics on the HR strategic agenda. The caring and nurturing role of welfare has been succeeded by notions of added value and the capacity of wellness to enhance corporate success. Put simply, healthy workforces are productive, whereas unhealthy ones are not. Employees’ physical and mental health therefore has a major effect on profitability and ultimately organizational competitiveness.

Proactive, strategic interventions in terms of wellness and employee well-being are reaching the forefront, building upon previous reactive approaches to the management of sick leave, care via occupational health and employee assistance programs. Initiatives to improve wellness include work-life balance policies and flexible working arrangements aimed at helping employees to manage the competing demands of increased working hours and the needs of their family lives. These initiatives are thought to provide increased employee choice and control and thus act as coping mechanisms in the management of stress. Indeed, it is argued that it is this choice and control over working patterns and hours that helps to provide empowerment as well as the promotion of a healthier lifestyle.

Employee wellness and well-being encompasses notions of happiness. Being happy and in high spirits helps us to function better, to be more creative in solving problems and more resilient in the face of adversity. This translates into a more productive working environment. By contrast, when we are anxious, depressed, or angry, our thoughts are typically more narrow, rigid, and inwardly focused. Perceptions of the workplace are critical in determining our view of our employer and our happiness at work.

On being recruited into a new workplace, it is usual to have a positive view of the prospective employer. Typically, with the selection process being a two-way affair, employees look forward to furthering their career and the benefits associated with working in a new, stimulating environment. Our perceptions of our employer go beyond the employment contract with its explicit job descriptions, duties, hours of work, pay, etc. Although they are unwritten and not openly discussed, both parties within the employment relationship—the organization and individual—have perceptions of each other and these form the basis of reciprocal promises and obligations implied within the relationship, described as the psychological contract.

Positive Aspects

As long as employees view their employment relationship as positive, they tend to be happier at work and willing to engage in extra-role activity and/or behaviors. These might include, for example, working on weekends to catch up or meet deadlines and taking on additional projects voluntarily. Such a positive psychological contract is associated with job satisfaction and organizational commitment which, in turn, translates into higher productivity and lower turnover/wastage rates.

Negative Aspects

However, once reciprocal promises are perceived to have been broken, the psychological contract is damaged, possibly beyond repair. At this point, employees become less willing to “go the extra mile” as typically they have lost trust in their employer and their job satisfaction declines. Organizational commitment is lowered and this prompts employees to look elsewhere for employment. Lower morale can also impact negatively on other employees, potentially creating a spiral of discontent.

The psychological contract may be affected negatively by long working hours and high work pressure. For example, a workplace culture that places pressure on people to continue working long hours is a concern in that it affects personal control and choice—the key factors that enable us to cope with stress.

Today’s war for talent means that employers must offer competitive and attractive terms and conditions if they are to attract and retain top people. The ability to exercise choice and control in the working environment is a key factor in employees’ employment decisions. Increasingly, work-life balance is viewed as being an essential component of the employment package and, as such, related policies and practices can act as a differentiator in employees’ decisions when selecting their potential employers.

Work-life balance initiatives should not be aimed at particular sectors of the working population; rather, policies should offer choice and control in terms of working time/patterns to all employees. A focus on women and those with children, for example, can serve to alienate men and the childless, resulting in potential disrespect, even hostility towards those who are seen as favored over others. Just as policy and practice should aim to offer work-life balance initiatives to all, it should not be assumed that everyone should adopt them. Not all individuals are suited to flexible working roles and patterns. Flexible working places different demands on the employee—and for some this is seen as a burden.

In addition, arrangements need to be considered in relation to other aspects of organizational life that are affected by work-life balance. For example, communication arrangements need to be tailored to ensure that those working flexible hours are not inadvertently excluded. Performance management systems need to recognize flexible approaches too. The introduction of a work-life balance policy has ramifications throughout the organization—it cannot be simply introduced by itself without thought for the consequences.


Besides consideration of the implications for other aspects of policy, an organizational culture that supports work-life balance initiatives is crucial to success. Employees may be suspicious—if not firmly believe—that flexible working amounts to career suicide. Once they embark on flexible work hours, for example, they will be passed over for promotion and not treated seriously in the career pathing process. This is particularly the case in organizations with “presenteeism” cultures where those who succeed are the ones who come in early and stay late as a matter of course (although one might question just how productive they actually are when working such long hours). To combat this perception, attitude change is required at a fundamental level and this will require top management commitment to the promotion of work-life policies, not just on paper but in practice too. To do this, leading by doing may be required. The culture needs to demonstrate that career advancement at all levels is not only possible, but encouraged through flexible working. Without this, perceptions of career death will never be broken and work-life initiatives stand little chance of reaching their full potential. Indeed, the working environment may even be, or be perceived as being, discriminatory.

A holistic approach encompassing tactical and strategic initiatives set within a package of business-focussed HR measures is therefore necessary. Work-life balance and flexible work initiatives must be supported and regularly reviewed. As previously mentioned, top-level commitment to well-being at work is a prerequisite to successful flexible working initiatives, but even this by itself is insufficient. Underpinning with employee involvement is required as well to create buy-in throughout the organization. Education and training will be needed to achieve this.

To demonstrate the positive effects, the creation and application of performance indicators to measure the effects of work-life balance policies and practices will also be required. This will require the development and use of tools to collect quantitative data. For instance, these may track recruitment, turnover, and absenteeism. A qualitative approach may support the hard data, measuring employee satisfaction and wellness via opinion surveys.

The AHRMIO /ORC Worldwide Work-Life Balance survey focused on how HR professionals manage the conflicting pressures of work and family life. The focus is particularly pertinent as it is the HR function that typically devises and implements the policies, but it is recognized as being notoriously slow to adopt them itself!

The survey asked participants a series of closed questions concerning the following issues:

  • Hours of work
  • Time off
  • Out of hours working
  • The impact of technology
  • Symptoms of stress
  • Organizational commitment
  • Work-life balance policies
  • Managing work-life balance for success

Participants were also able to record their comments in response to a number of open-ended questions.

Let us now look at the participants’ responses to these issues within the context of the background of work-life balance to see what lessons can be learned about the HR profession itself and the impact on organizational working and consequent potential competitiveness.

The majority of organizations (91 percent) in which the participants worked had an official (contractual) working week (Monday to Friday, excluding lunch). Although the majority of the participants (76 percent) worked an average of five days a week, some 16 percent reported working six days and 1 percent seven days a week. Almost all of the respondents (96 percent) worked 35 or more hours a week (i.e., full-time). However, almost three-quarters of the sample (73 percent) worked 45 hours or more and nearly half (48 percent), worked 50 or more hours each week.

The data indicated that the HR profession appears to be one of long working hours. To add to this, there appeared to be a gradual increase in hours worked over time. Although the majority of respondents (71 percent) saw no change to their working hours over the three months preceding the survey data collection, some 18 percent reported an increase in their working hours over this period. Only 12 percent reported a drop in their working hours during the previous three months.

We would expect that women would work, on average, fewer hours than men (as they take primary responsibility for duties in the home and childcare responsibility and therefore have a more difficult juggling act in terms of balancing the time they can spend at work with the other pressures upon them). Indeed, the survey data did show this to be the case: 83 percent of men worked 45 hours or more a week compared to 56 percent of women. We might also expect that, due to cultural pressures and legislative issues, Americans would work longer hours than their counterparts in Europe. The survey results confirmed this as well. Almost one-third of the North American respondents worked in excess of 50 hours a week, compared with 19 percent of the European sample, although, interestingly, participants in the “other” regions surveyed worked the longest hours, with half of those surveyed working over 50 hours a week.

It is also usually believed that private-sector employees work longer hours than their counterparts in the public sector. Data in this survey did not, however, find this to be the case. HR professionals working in the public sector worked similar hours to those in the private sector.

Participants were asked why they worked such long hours. Eighty-six percent said that the sheer volume of work demanded long working hours, while 59 percent said that they felt that they had to put in extra hours or days to complete the work to their own personal standards. Nearly one-quarter (23 percent), however, said that long working hours was part of the organization’s culture and they were expected to fit in. There were regional differences in this regard, though. European respondents were less likely than others to feel a “presenteeism” style of internal company culture: only 18 percent of European participants reported internal pressure to work long hours compared with 31 percent of North Americans and 42 percent of those from other regions. Some respondents worked long hours to advance in their job (12 percent) but hardly any worked long hours for the money—a mere 1 percent. (There is a clear message here for employee reward specialists!)

Survey participants were asked a series of questions concerning time off from work, ranging from practice concerning taking lunch breaks through to the taking of annual vacation.

The majority of participants (85 percent) reported that they were able to take their lunch breaks at any time, although the remainder had a fixed break time. The average period taken was 53 minutes. Only one quarter of the participants reported that they took their full lunch break entitlement, with 31 percent stating that they never did so. The participants, it appeared, were desk bound for the most part. Only 17 percent said that they never ate lunch at their desk. For some, there was little or no escape from the working environment—just under a quarter said that they ate at their desks four or five times a week, while some 40 percent reported that they ate at their desks two or three times a week. The North American long hours, desk-bound working culture was reflected in this data too. The survey found that Americans ate at their desks on most days whereas respondents in Europe and other regions were, at least, more likely to eat in common areas. Women were less likely to take their full lunch break and more often ate at their desks then men, again perhaps indicating the increased pressure on them to utilize as much working time as possible, reflecting their shorter working hours.

In terms of vacation entitlement, the average survey participant was entitled to 29 days of leave each year. Just under one-third (30 percent) took it all while just under half (49 percent) said that they took most of it. Interestingly, 1 percent said that they did not take their holidays (with serious stress issues implied here). In line with cultural norms, more Europeans reported using most or all of their vacation entitlement. As expected, North American HR professionals received the lowest vacation entitlement, 23 days compared with 31 for participants in Europe and other regions. Although vacation is intended to be an opportunity for relaxation, the data revealed that some 60 percent of the participants regularly or sometimes performed work while on holiday. As the reasons for long working hours concerned volume of work and personal standards, we can deduce that the participants did not take work away on holiday for its enjoyment value!

Average hours worked per week by region

To establish the degree to which working life extended beyond “freetime” in the office and annual leave and overlapped into other out of hours time, participants were asked a series of questions concerning the degree to which they worked outside of normal working hours during evenings and weekends. The survey found that just over half (51 percent) thought that they were expected to work on weekends to meet deadlines or to catch up.

Attendance at meetings outside of normal working hours was a further area of investigation. One-fifth of the participants reported that they attended business meetings frequently during their own time. There seemed to be a regional bias in this data in that 42 percent of those in regions other than North America or Europe reported attending meetings often or very often outside of normal working hours. Respondents from the other regions were also more likely to perform work-related tasks during the evenings and weekends.

Business travel was considered as yet another source of work-related duty that encroached into private time—two-thirds of participants reported that they had to undertake business travel on weekends or public holidays either regularly or occasionally. Yet few (19 percent) received any compensatory time off.

Interestingly, around one-third of participants felt that they were expected to reply to telephone calls outside of working hours in the evenings while about a quarter said that they felt that they were expected to respond to calls on weekends or while on vacation. This proportion increased to over half (54 percent) in terms of responding to phone calls outside of working hours if away on business. The proportions were slightly lower in regard to being expected to respond to emails outside of normal hours. Nevertheless, over three-quarters of the participants sometimes or frequently spent time outside of normal working hours emailing colleagues or doing other work-related tasks.

Out of hours working when not physically present in the office raises the issue of technology and how it blurs the distinction between home and work life.

Recognizing the impact of technology on private and working life, participants were asked a series of specific questions regarding the technological tools they had available to them and how the demands of technology were met in their organizations. Such technology not only makes us constantly contactable but increases the pressure to be so.

Email overload is a feature of many people’s working lives. Clearing out unnecessary emails and spam serves to waste precious time in the working day. Excluding spam, the participants were asked how many emails they received and sent in a working day. Over half (53 percent) said that they received more than 50 emails daily, while 24 percent sent more than this number daily. Senior management/director level employees received the most email—possibly because at senior levels courtesy copies are the norm.

It was not common for organizations to issue email protocols. Only 15 percent reported that their organizations had issued guidelines on how fast emails must be answered. Timelines ranged from same day to five days and often distinguished between an acknowledgement and a substantive reply. Although not necessarily required to respond immediately by their organizations, it is interesting that the majority of participants (78 percent) expected return replies to emails that they sent.

When away on vacation, only 32 percent reported that they had email back-up. Of those who did not, 42 percent thought that it would relieve pressure on them if such backup was available.

With regard to other forms of communications technology, the survey data indicated that most of the participants (87 percent) used cell (mobile) phones, although 56 percent reported that they were used for business purposes. However, only 16 per cent had a BlackBerry for business use (a hand-held mobile device working off satellite communications technology that gives the user access to email and to the Web almost anywhere on the planet, as well as voice-based communication).

Survey participants were asked a series of questions to try to establish the impact of long working hours on their health and welfare. The questions concerned their attitudes towards working time, workloads, and colleagues, in order to explore whether they were experiencing behavioral symptoms of stress, such as feelings of being overwhelmed by work, feelings of anger, irritability, and resentment, and being unable to relax and take time out.

First, in relation to issues of control and how this enables us to cope with pressure, participants were asked whether they worked more hours than they would have preferred over the three month period preceding the survey. The results were quite sobering, in that over half of the respondents had worked more hours than they would have preferred to have done either often or very often. Nearly half (44 percent) said that they felt overworked either often or very often during this period. This indicates that many participants are feeling strain from long working hours. Working hard places strain upon us, but feeling overwhelmed indicates inability to cope. So the participants were then asked whether they felt overwhelmed by their workloads. Reflecting on the three-month period prior to the survey being conducted, around one-third of the respondents reported that they had felt overwhelmed either often or very often. In addition, some 46 percent said that they had sometimes felt overwhelmed by their workload.

The Need to Reflect

A further behavioral symptom of stress is the inability to step back and reflect, and instead tend to simply jump from one task to another without clear focus. The participants were therefore asked whether they had felt able to reflect on their work during the three-month period prior to the survey being conducted. Almost half of the respondents said that they often or very often felt that they did not have time to step back and reflect on their work—again indicating the likelihood of their experiencing behavioral stress symptoms.

Reflecting the pressures of being the main breadwinners in the household, primary wage earners emerged as more frequently feeling overworked and overwhelmed by their workload than others. Women more often said that they were frequently overwhelmed, even though they were no more likely than men to feel overworked. This might be because women tended to spend fewer hours at work than men and so had less time available to them in the office to complete their tasks. Once again the pressure on North Americans was in evidence in that participants from this region reported feeling overwhelmed more frequently than participants from other regions.

The survey data relating to lunch breaks discussed earlier can be referred to again in terms of stress. Behavioral stress symptoms include poor eating habits. Although eating at one’s desk does not necessarily indicate these, it does indicate the potential for insufficient rest breaks with consequent loss of productivity later in the day.

Further behavioral stress symptoms include anger and resentment. The survey participants were asked how often during the three months preceding the survey they had felt anger towards their employer and resentment of less hard-working co-workers. Nearly half of the respondents said that they had experienced feelings of anger towards their employer during this period and nearly 40 percent were resentful of co-workers, sometimes or often.

Evidence of Stress

Overall, the data indicates that a sizeable proportion of the respondents are suffering from stress. The issue is whether they recognize it as such. As HR professionals, they should be more likely to be mindful of stress issues at work than employees in other functions. Professional courses for HR include stress issues and employers’ legal liabilities in terms of duty of care, health and safety, and well-being at work. So we would expect that HR should recognize its own stresses and any ill-health effects potentially resulting from them. Taking up this line of reasoning, the survey asked participants about their health. The average participant reported good or very good health over the three months preceding the survey. Yet, 20 percent reported that they often or very often had lost sleep due to work-related issues, while another 36 percent said that this had sometimes been the case. North Americans were the most likely to lose sleep over work. Half of Europeans and participants from other regions said they rarely or never lost sleep over work, while only 28 percent of North Americans claimed the same.

Stress also manifests itself in a loss of interest in home life or conflict between work and home pressures. Participants were therefore asked a series of questions regarding whether and how work interfered with their private lives. Almost three quarters of respondents (74 percent) frequently or sometimes experienced conflict between work and family life. Around 14 percent experienced significant or extreme stress from work intrusion.

Despite this, the majority (57 percent) of survey respondents felt that work either did not affect their home life or that they considered this manageable.The existence of written work-life policies did appear to mitigate stress. Survey participants who worked in organizations with written work-life policies did not work any less than others, but the findings revealed that they experienced less stress as a result of intrusions into their personal lives. Participants whose employers provided such policies more often said that the amount of work intrusion and resulting stress was manageable than those working in organizations without such support.

Participants were asked to select from a list of pressures that they might have experienced during the previous three months.

Both men and women gave similar emphasis to the pressures placed upon them. The most often cited were difficulty in focusing on work and the need to work on too many tasks at once. Given that working on several tasks at once and difficulty in focusing on them are behavioral symptoms of stress, it might be debated whether these results indicate cause or effect.

North Americans, once again, emerged as the main sufferers of stress in that they selected every pressure cited in the list of six more often than respondents from other regions. Those who were the primary wage-earners in their family also selected each item more frequently than those who were not primary wage-earners.

Long working hours and suffering from stress affects organizational commitment. The survey participants were therefore asked a series of questions to determine how they felt about work. Overall, they reported themselves as being moderately happy: on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being least happy, the average response was 4.5.

In terms of working time, internal pressure or company culture proved to be a greater factor in whether participants stayed late at work than peer pressure. Fifty-four percent of participants overall reported feeling the internal pressure, sometimes known as “presenteeism,” to stay late at least some of the time, while only 28 percent reported feelings of peer pressure not to leave at the end of the normal work day. Women tended to feel the internal pressure more intensely than men, as did primary wage earners.

When asked about their ability to manage day-to-day responsibilities, just over half (54 percent) thought that their ability was good, while 35 percent viewed it as very good and almost 7 percent said this was excellent.

Despite believing that they managed their duties and responsibilities well on the whole, 40 percent of participants said that they were sometimes or often resentful of co-workers who did not work as hard as they did. Responses differed little by gender, sector, or region, but primary wage-earners reported resentment more often than those who were not the primary earners in their families. This probably reflects the pressures that primary wage earners feel to a greater degree than non-primary earners.

Going beyond resentment of co-workers, dissatisfaction at work was sometimes or frequently expressed as anger towards their employers by nearly half of survey participants. These findings are of particular interest in that they affect the state of the psychological contract and, in turn, the employees’ commitment to their employers and consequent productivity.

Pressures felt in previous three months by men
Pressures felt in previous three months by women

Having explored the impact of working life upon the HR professionals, the survey posed questions to determine whether the existence of a work-life balance policy and its application in practice made any difference to the participants themselves and to their organizations in terms of positive attitudes, commitment, and productivity. The majority of respondents in the survey (55 percent) said their organizations did not have written work-life policies, with only around one-third of respondents having a formal policy in place. There was little difference between public- and private-sector organizations in this regard. Of those that did believe their employers had written policies, 80 percent said that administrative instructions to implement the policy had been issued, and 55 percent said that the policy was updated on a regular basis.

North American organizations were more likely to have official work-life policies (54 percent of the total) compared with European organizations (44 percent). Differences emerged by gender in terms of knowledge of existence of the policies. Women were more likely than men to say that their organization had a policy, that there were administrative instructions, and that regular updating took place. Perhaps this was because women more frequently sought out information on work-life balance and made more use of the policies.

Having a policy is one thing, but it must be set within the context of organizational culture—a supportive culture is necessary if it is to be worth the paper it is written upon and employees are to be able to manage their work-life balance with any degree of success.

It did seem to be the case that the presence of a work-life policy made a difference within the working environment. Just under 80 percent of respondents reported that they felt that having a policy in place had made a difference to performance and, overall, the majority of respondents whose employers had a work-life policy believed that it had been of value. Regional differences were particularly clear on this issue. HR professionals in North America were noticeably more convinced that the official policy had made a positive impact in their working environment, with 80 percent of those with a written policy commenting on positive outcomes. However, those based in Europe were a little more skeptical, with 65 percent of those with written policies commenting on their positive impact.

Two-thirds of the survey respondents said that having a work-life balance policy in place had made a difference to them personally. Perhaps not surprisingly, the survey results revealed that women were more positive than men about the effect of the work-life policy on them personally, on the workplace as a whole, and on the company’s performance.

Interestingly, although there was no appreciable difference in the value that private- and public-sector employees place on work-life policies, public-sector employees were less likely to report that the policies had affected their workplaces positively. Private-sector employees were less likely to see a positive impact on organizational performance. The types of programs offered by the public and private employers, as listed by respondents of the survey, appeared to be very similar, including elements of support such as telecommuting, flexible work schedules, part-time opportunities, compressed work weeks, and parental leave. Possible explanations of the differences in views on the benefits of the policies to the organizations might perhaps be explained in terms of organizational strategy. Possibly, the public and private sectors translate work-life issues differently in terms of performance with, for example, the private sector looking to financial results to a greater extent as a key success indicator.

Overall, the portrait that emerged from this ORC/AHRMIO study was of an HR workforce under pressure, but coping for the most part. Participants worked long hours (the majority over 45 hours per week and nearly half over 50 hours per week), with most being unable to leave work at the office when they went home. Although the majority said that the intrusion of work into their personal lives was manageable, a substantial minority did suffer stress as a result of significant intrusions from work into their personal lives.

The study found that a substantial portion of participants (44 percent) felt overworked and around one-third felt overwhelmed by the work that they had to do. Fourteen percent experienced significant or extreme stress as a result of the intrusion of work into their home lives. Interestingly, this survey did not show a clear distinction in stress levels between men and women. While more women reported feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to do, they were no more likely to say they were overworked or that they experienced significant stress as a result.

The one demographic segment that consistently expressed higher levels of work-life imbalance and stress comprised those survey participants who were the primary wage earners in their families. Although there is no clear-cut answer as to why this should be so, one hypothesis might be that primary earners felt more stress simply because they were primary wage earners and, as such, were constantly aware of the responsibility they bore for their families’ livelihoods.

Employers may be heartened to know, however, that the HR professionals in this survey, whether primary wage earners or not, were moderately happy in their jobs. However, this needs to set against reported feelings of resentment of less hard-working colleagues and anger towards their employers by a significant proportion of the survey respondents.

Work-life balance policies appeared to mitigate the stress experienced by HR professionals in the survey. Not only did the majority of those who worked in organizations with such policies believe they had benefited from them, but those individuals also reported less stress as a result of work intruding on their personal lives—even though they put in as many hours as the participants in organizations with no work-life policies. Clearly, the ability to control when and where those extra hours are worked makes a difference in how effectively people balance the work-related and personal demands on their time.

The findings from the survey point to specific actions that organizations can consider to address the problem areas highlighted.

Work-life balance policies play a crucial role in mitigating workplace stress and increasing organizational commitment. Employers should therefore consider:

  • Taking a strategic approach to the management of working time, recognizing the value to individuals and organizations of work-life balance initiatives
  • Involving employees in the development and implementation of work-life balance policies and procedures
  • Producing policies and administrative guidelines for their implementation which promote work-life balance initiatives for all sections of the workforce
  • Ensuring that work-life balance initiatives are updated regularly and that communication with employees concerning them are maintained
  • Providing education and training for all, both on the initiatives themselves and their impact on other areas of management and organizational life, as well as on symptoms of stress and stress management techniques
  • Ensuring top management commitment to work-life initiatives and demonstrating this actively to show that career advancement is in no way damaged through their use
  • Considering efforts to promote cultural change away from “presenteeism” towards recognition of performance, irrespective of desk time
  • Tracking the success of work-life balance initiatives through quantitative and qualitative measures

HR professionals, although coping, are by no means as effective as they might be, as demonstrated by their answers in this study. HR is the profession which, if any, should have a clear understanding of the impact of stress on health and organizational commitment. Yet, it seems the level of workload and demands of the job require them to work longer hours than they would prefer and manage resulting family and work-related conflicts.

Work-life balance policies, where in place, appear to reduce these problems. The solution does not simply lie in introducing work-life balance policies across all organizations, but in their actual use. HR professionals should practice what they preach and take responsibility for, and gain confidence in, the value of work-life initiatives. By so doing they will not only improve their own work-life balance and encourage others to follow suit but also, as a consequence of this, help to play their part in the achievement of greater organizational competitive advantage.