Culture and Work-Life Balance

The increased time pressures of the always-connected workplace are eroding the boundary between work life and personal life, and many individuals in postindustrial economies struggle to balance the two. Is this striving for work-life balance unique to the North American and European context, or is it a global phenomenon?

One possible reason for variations in work-life balance across countries is differences in the structure and functioning of the family. Some research suggests that countries with stronger differences in expectations for men and women have different levels and types of work-life conflict. Other research suggests that work-life balance will be different in an individualistic country like the United States than in a country that is more collectivist in its orientation. In individualist countries, employers might expect more sacrifice from their employees in terms of their family lives, whereas collectivist nations where family has a higher priority will have fewer work-life balance issues. Conversely, collectivists’ higher value on family may mean they feel more conflicted if there are competing demands from the workplace and home.

There are other reasons to suspect that research based on the U.S. context will not generalize to other countries. Data from a study by Harvard and McGill University researchers found that work-life balance policies like paid maternity leave, paternity leave, and paid time off in the United States are far less generous than in other wealthy nations. The study’s lead author, Jody Heymann, notes, “More countries are providing the workplace protections that millions of Americans can only dream of.” The research interest in work-life balance may at least partially be a reflection of an unusually strong conflict between work and family life in the United States.

At the same time, many of the same issues that contribute to work-life imbalance are present in other countries. Globally, the rise of the dual-earner couple has meant that both partners now have family responsibilities that must be met. Always-connected technology that blurs the line between personal and work time have become standard for managers in every part of the world. The institution of “siesta,” or a midday break, used to be much more common in Hispanic cultures than it is today as the globalized workplace puts greater demands on workers. Concerns about overwork have also become very prevalent in the rapidly growing economic sphere of East Asia. The Japanese even have a term, “karoshi,” referring to death from overwork.

Research to date does suggest that work-life concerns are present in other cultures. For example, most studies find that feelings of conflict between work and personal life are related to lower levels of satisfaction and higher levels of psychological strain. The magnitude of these relationships varies across countries, but it appears that concerns about work interfering with family are present around the world. There is also evidence that translated U.S. surveys about work-life conflicts are equally good measures of work-life conflicts in Europe and East Asia.

Even with the growth of international research, most studies to date have been designed and conducted entirely within the United States, and many others have been conducted in cultures with marked similarities to the United States, like Canada and Great Britain.</para> As the number of international studies continues to increase, we will develop a better understanding of how different cultures relate to work-life challenges.


Source: Based on G. N. Powell, A. M. Francesco, and Y. Ling, “Toward Culture-Sensitive Theories of the Work-Family Interface,” Journal of Organizational Behavior 30, (2009), pp. 597-616; Anonymous, “Survey: U.S. Workplace Not Family-Oriented.”, May 22, 2007,; and J. Lu, O. Siu, P. E. Spector, and K. Shi, “Antecedents and Outcomes of a Fourfold Taxonomy of Work-Family Balance in Chinese Employed Parents,” Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 14, (2009), pp. 182-192.

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