Better Work-Life Balance Starts With Managers

We all want to live rich and meaningful lives, at work and at home. Around the world, more and more employees are seeking flexible work arrangements in order to do so, and companies looking to meet these expectations are increasingly offering a variety of family-friendly policies.

In Europe, remote work, flextime, (paid or unpaid) leaves of absence and sabbaticals are the most common. While these policies seem positive, many have unintended consequences on workers because:

  • FLEXIBILITY DOES NOT ALWAYS TRANSLATE INTO BETTER WORK-LIFE BALANCE: Remote workers often experience increased work intensity and reduced autonomy because they have no choice but to rely on their digital devices to do their work and communicate with colleagues. This constant connectivity can blur the boundaries between work and nonwork activities.
  • PAID FAMILY LEAVES OR CHILD CARE SUPPORT CAN RAISE PERCEPTIONS OF UNFAIRNESS IN THE WORKFORCE: Such policies are typically reserved for workers with caregiving responsibilities, and are much less accessible to workers who desire the same level of work-life balance but lack urgent family responsibilities.
  • THE MAJORITY OF EMPLOYEES WHO DO HAVE ACCESS TO FLEXIBLE WORK ARRANGEMENTS ARE RELUCTANT TO USE THEM: Many people fear that doing so might suggest they lack commitment to work, and negatively impact their careers.

To figure out how organizations can overcome these concerns, we conducted a study examining the experiences of working parents in Italy. We asked participants to rate their work environments, direct supervisors and organizational cultures on a scale of one to five, with five being the most family-supportive and one being the least. We also asked them how often they use family-friendly policies available at work (if any), as well as the number of hours they work per week.

Through our research, we discovered that companies need to focus their efforts in two main areas if they wish to create a healthy work-life balance for their teams.


Employees who work with a supportive supervisor — someone who offers emotional and practical support, acts as a positive role model and is a creative problem-solver — experience reduced work-life conflict, improved health and increased fulfillment on the job and at home.

This is because supervisors represent the organization at large in the eyes of their teams. They have the power to encourage (or discourage) employees from using family-friendly policies through their attitudes and behaviors, which can signal (or not signal) that there will be consequences for those who prioritize or provide equal importance to family and work responsibilities. A supervisor who has expectations that are at odds with the personal goals of their employees can have a detrimental impact on their work-life balance.

Based on our findings, we believe that companies that educate their leaders on the organizational benefits of providing employees with a healthy work-life balance will see better results than those that focus solely on designing formal policies. Organizations can start by training supervisors on how to provide their teams with performance, family and personal support, and informing them why it is important to do so: Nonwork activities allow employees to broaden their networks, develop new skills and gain a greater sense of personal and professional purpose.


Training supervisors to become more supportive of family-friendly policies indirectly impacts organizational culture. The predominant culture in most Italian companies is built upon something called the “ideal worker framework,” which depicts the ideal worker as someone who is physically present in the office, who is available to work 24/7 and who is ready to sacrifice having a personal life in order to have a career. Although this model may fit both men and women, in Italy, the “ideal worker” is often expected to be a man with a stay-at-home partner, or in rare cases, a single woman.

Therefore, it is not surprising that our research reveals that companies are much more supportive of women who request family leave than men. Fathers of young children often prefer taking a day off to requesting family leave — even when they are entitled to do so — in order to avoid negative consequences. In fact, 81% of our subjects rated their organizational cultures as unsupportive of personal obligations.

In contrast, we found that employees who work at organizations that do support their time tend to have better work-life balance and reduced work-family conflict. These employees also are more likely to take advantage of flexible work arrangements, and if they have a supportive supervisor, work fewer hours. As a result, they tend to be more satisfied in their roles and more loyal to their organizations.

We believe that in addition to training supervisors to set the tone of the larger company culture, creating employee resource groups is a valuable way for organizations to offer support and resources for workers.


Many companies, and workers themselves, struggle to do achieve a good work-life balance. This is largely because it requires both parties to redefine what it means to be an “ideal worker.”

Today, many of us have an innate desire to protect the “happy” workaholic identities that we have constructed for ourselves over the years, and to avoid our fear of what a more balanced professional identity looks like. This fear is largely because many of us do not know what to do when we are not working. Scholars argue that because we give significantly less consideration to how we spend our free time than how we spend our work time, and that we tend to think of free time as a waste of energy. Another study suggests that our overworked culture is, in part, caused by modern organizations that are full of insecure workers who still require objective data, like the number of hours worked per week, to demonstrate their value.

The real first step toward achieving work-life balance needs to happen at the individual level. It is important for workers and leaders to cultivate broader professional identities, ones that leave space for family, community and finding meaning in activities outside of work. Once we begin to value our leisure time, we will find it easier to separate who we are at work and who we are outside of the office — and ensure that flexible work policies actually have the impact they were designed for.

Copyright 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

Topics: Management

Are You Leading Through the Crisis ... or Managing the Response?
The Evolution of Leaders as Coaches