The state of work-life balance across Australasia

Work-life balance (WLB) research employs multiple definitions and means of measurement. Essentially though it is the interaction of demands that arise from work and non-work environments, and the variation of these demands between countries and cultures is the focus of a recently co-authored book chapter by Centre for Work, Organisation and Wellbeing (WOW) and Menzie’s Health Institute Queensland member, Professor Paula Brough.

A new way to measure WLB

Paula and colleagues administered a questionnaire to 11 421 workers in China, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand which builds upon recommendations from her 2008 co-authored study on WLB to include measurements of employee subjectivity. This longitudinal survey introduced a new four item scale which accounts for employees’ perceptions about their capacity to, and success in, balancing work and non-work roles, and how they navigate the demands of doing so. Says Professor Brough:

“Published examples of longitudinal work-life balance research are scarce….The relationships observed [in this new study]…compare favourably with the reported associations between…work-life conflict/interference/balance and recognised correlates…[to] offer further support of the validity of this new…measure.”

What does WLB look like in different countries?

Results from this 2014 cross-national study which used six different samples of workers – three in Australia, two in China, and one each in Hong Kong and New Zealand – from industries such as retail, media, health, public service, education and finance were tested against established precursors for WLB: work demands, job satisfaction, psychological strain, and intentions to leave a job. Paula explains:

“[While this new tool of measurement] was significantly predictive in the Australian samples of three of the four [established precursors] — job satisfaction, turnover intentions and psychological strain -…these results were not…replicated in the Chinese data where these relationships were all non-significant. This result is particularly noteworthy given the variations in the sample characteristics, such as predominately female samples (China and Australia 2), a predominately male sample (Australia 3)…and a predominately young sample (China).”

China’s influence on how we interpret work behaviour

Significant differences between the Australian and Chinese samples in the study have likewise raised questions about the impact of psychosocial work environments in Anglo and Asian countries.

Professor Paula Brough has spent 20 years researching to enhance the psychological health of workers.
Professor Paula Brough has spent 20 years researching to enhance the psychological health of workers.

The team suggest likely influences may include differences in demography, culture (i.e. individualist vs collectivist) and labour markets. Adds Paula (pictured left):

“Several [previous] studies…have demonstrated clear applications of the relationship between psychosocial work environment and work-related mental health within Chinese organisations…[although] within [its] work culture, conflict between work and life is regarded as a personal problem…[and is therefore]…a rare consideration of managers within Chinese firms.”

But an emerging cohort of better educated, ambitious, globally-aware and technologically savvy Chinese workers who have grown up through three decades of economic growth are expected to heavily influence the direction of a country where the social inferiority of women is minimising and WLB adjustments will be an inevitable employee retention strategy.

Technology: intruding on WLB boundaries?

Instant connectivity opens the potential for spill over of work-to-life and vice versa, says the team, with navigating and controlling breached boundaries usually falling upon the employee. Professor Brough and her colleagues warn employers of the threat that constant connectivity places on workers’ psychological health and the permeation of work into personal time, as both have implications for“recovery from workplace strain,…optimal [worker] performance…[and therefore] ongoing organisational productivity gains.”

This research is featured in L. Lu and C.L. Cooper’s (eds) 2015 Handbook of Research on Work-Life Balance in Asia, in a chapter entitled, ‘Cross-cultural impact of work-life balance on health and work outcomes’. Paula’s co-authors include Carolyn Timms, Oi-Ling Siu, Michael O’Driscoll and Thomas Kalliath.