How Organizational Culture Affects Work-Life Balance

Start up culture! Go to work and even bring your dog!
Start up culture! Go to work and even bring your dog!

Working folks who aspire to integrate that work with a meaningful, fun, and fulfilling life are often lone rangers -- desperately and individually striving to achieve all they want to achieve at work, at home, in their communities, and within themselves. But the pursuit of work-life balance doesn't have to be a lonely endeavor. There are things an employer can do to help all employees balance work with their other passions -- but those things might not be what you think.

Take this job and balance it!

In a
by the
, fully 39% of respondents indicated that they did not have a good balance between their work and personal lives. More importantly, 27% of employees who said they worked for a company that didn't support work-life balance indicated that they planned to leave their companies within the next two years.
On the other hand, only 17% of folks who worked for companies that really support employees having meaningful, fun, and fulfilling lives at work and elsewhere said they would leave.
When we don't feel like we can get the balance right -- and it seems like our employer doesn't care -- we often feel like we have no choice but to quit. And even when well-meaning employers put programs in place like flexible work arrangements, work-from-home options, and other measures intended to help us live rich, complete lives, those programs often fall short because other elements of the organizational culture -- like expectations about "face time" and other non-flexible work biases -- prevent them from truly delivering their promised benefits.

Don't just empower -- enable

What the Hay research discovered was that flexible working arrangements and the like are important and valuable, but the organizations that really make employees feel like work-life balance was valued are the ones that enable those employees to do their jobs as efficiently and effectively as possible. In other words, the cultures of these organizations create an environment in which folks can do good work and then get the heck out of there! Some of the traits of these cultures include:
  • Ensuring that employees have adequate tools and resources
  • Investing in training and development to ensure that employees have the knowledge, skills, and abilities they need
  • Encouraging and enabling cross-functional collaboration
  • Implementing policies and procedures that distribute workloads evenly
  • Providing clear organizational direction that enables employees to prioritize their work
Interestingly, this aligns pretty closely to research first conducted by Robert Karasek and Tores Theorell in the '70s (and confirmed since) on the relationship between the demands of a job, support given on the job, and the degree of strain felt at work. Karasek and Theorell developed the "demand-control model" to illustrate their findings, and it looked something like this:

Essentially, Karasek and Theorell's research foreshadowed the Hay study, finding that folks with high demands and low control or support in their jobs experienced a great deal of strain (which is likely to lead to burnout or loud obscenities in a conference room), while folks with high demands and high control or support were active and engaged in their work.

What does a work-life balance culture look like?

In a
, Steingerdur Ólafsdottir researched an Icelandic software consulting company that had been identified by employees as being very supportive of balancing work, community, family, and self-development needs. Ólafsdottir found the following traits, among others, in the culture of the organization:
  • Fun
  • Ambition
  • Flexibility
  • Openness
  • Cooperation
  • Informality
  • Flat organizational structure
  • Trust
  • Responsibility
  • Support
  • Pride
Within this organization, Ólafsdottir identified several things that managers and leaders did to create this culture:
  • They were understanding of employees needs and concerns
  • They made themselves available to employees
  • They were supportive of employees when they encountered challenges
  • They demonstrated trust of their employees
  • They gave their employees feedback on their work
Sounds like just plain good management, doesn't it? In a way, that's what it all comes down to. Organizational cultures that are managed intentionally, consciously, and with an eye toward enabling employees are more likely to attract and retain employees who lead meaningful, fun, and fulfilling lives in which they feel better able to balance the demands of work, home, community, and self.

The research shows that those of us who insist on leading rich, dynamic lives of purpose don't have to be lone rangers. We can build organizational cultures that make this meaningful mission possible for everyone.

Eryc Eyl is an author, speaker, coach, and consultant who helps working folks integrate their work with a meaningful, fun, and fulfilling life, so they can keep their heads and their hearts while keeping their jobs. You can find out more and subscribe to his weekly newsletter by visiting

Photo illustration courtesy of chanpipat/
Fancy illustration of the Karasek-Theorell job demand-control model by Eryc Eyl