Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

Providing a Theoretical Foundation for Work-Life Balance - Sen's Capability Approach

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

Providing a Theoretical Foundation for Work-Life Balance - Sen's Capability Approach

Article excerpt


After reviewing and summarising critical accounts of the Work-Life Balance (WLB) in two special issues in academic journals in 2007, the paper turns to Amartya Sen's capability approach and feminist economics to address shortcomings and gaps in the WLB concept. In particular, Sen's capability approach can provide a substantial theoretical foundation for the so far conceptually underdeveloped and one-sided WLB. The aim of the application of Sen's ideas in this paper is to understand and sort out some of the complexities and biases inherent in the WLB discussion. On the basis of this, further conceptual work might lead to a basic integrated framework for WLB policies in the future.

Key words: Feminist Analysis, Structures of Constraint, Capability, Work-Life Balance

"I believe that variety is part of human existence and in fact - though this is quite irrelevant - that is a valuable attribute, though that is a very late idea, probably not be met much before the eighteenth century" (Isaiah Berlin in a letter in 1986).

Freedom of Choice and Work-Life-Balance

An organisation promoting Work-Life-Balance (WLB) defines it as:

Work-life balance is about people having a measure of control over when, where and how they work. It is achieved when an individual's right to a fulfilled life inside and outside paid work is accepted and respected as the norm, to the mutual benefit of the individual, business and society . . . (Employers for Work Life Balance 2006, cited in Fleetwood, 2007a: 351).

Closer to home, the Department of Labour in New Zealand defines WLB as: "effectively managing the juggling act between paid work and the other activities that are important to people" (cited in McPherson and Reed, 2007: 14). Surveys and critical reviews of the WLB approach have recently identified considerable problems with this concept. Eikhof, Warhurst and Haunschild, 2007, provide a concise overview of these criticisms and highlight three major shortcomings of WLB:

1) The premise that work is bad, "... that individuals tend to have too much rather than too little work" (Eikhof et al., 2007: 326) and therefore working time arrangements are the point of intervention;

2) The premise that "life" can be equated with caring (mainly childcare) which is seen as a female responsibility and that women are, therefore, the primary target of work-life balance provisions;

3) The assumption "... that work and life are separable and in need of being separated" (Eikhof et al., 2007: 326).

If the first premise is true, logically, overall reduction of working hours should be the primary goal. However, Eikhof et al. point out that "... the most common policy prescription is not to shorten working hours but to provide employees with more flexibility in their working hours, for instance by part-time working or flexi-hours" (2007: 326/327). With a particular emphasis on work from home, Felstead, Jewson, Phizacklea and Walter's article (2002) is representative of a narrow flexibility oriented approach to WLB. This focus is even apparent in their definition of WLB: "In short, work-life balance practices are those which, intentionally or not, increase the flexibility and autonomy of the worker in negotiating attention and presence in employment" (ibid. 56). Such flexibility solutions are mainly driven by employers' interests to service a 24/7 economy and does not necessarily lead to an employer-employee win- win situation (Lewis, Gambles and Rapoport, 2007). Though narrowly focussed on the financial sector in Scotland, an article by Hyman and Summers "... indicates the prevalence of management control of the work-life balance agenda and management's discretion in the operation of work-life issues" (2007: 367). Moreover, employees and their representatives seem to accept this control without challenging it. Employers perceiving recruitment and retention problems offer flexibility to draw into work the reserve army of mothers1. …

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