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date: 20 January 2018

Negotiating Work–Life

Summary and Keywords

How people negotiate the work–life interface remains a popular topic for scholars and the public. Work–life research is a large body of interdisciplinary scholarship that considers how people experience, navigate, and negotiate different roles, commitments, and boundaries within and across life domains—often with the goal of improving individual, organizational, and social well-being and success. Spurred by demographic, social, economic, and technological changes, scholars take difference perspectives on overlapping research areas which include work–life balance, work–life conflict, work–family conflict, boundary management, work–life enrichment or facilitation, as well as positive or negative spillover. Key issues addressed include the implications of framing work–life as a dichotomy, drivers of work–life outcomes, how ideals shape work–life negotiations, how individuals negotiate everyday work–life challenges and opportunities, and the influence of evolving information and communication technologies on the work–life interface. Research from multiple disciplines highlights the demographic, economic, moral, cultural, and national factors that affect work–life practices, processes, policies, tactics, and outcomes. This multidisciplinary perspective provides relevant insights for generative research and resilient practice for individuals, groups, organizations, or societies.

Keywords: work–life, work, nonwork, work-family conflict, work-family integration, boundaries, role, identity, sensemaking, boundary crossing, well-being


How people negotiate the work–life interface remains a popular topic for scholars and the public. Work–life research refers to a large body of interdisciplinary scholarship on how people experience, navigate, and negotiate different roles, tasks, commitments, and boundaries within and across life domains. Contemporary work–life scholarship assumes a bidirectional relationship between work and life—namely, work influences life and life influences work. Work–life research often focuses on the antecedents and outcomes of work–life conflict or work–life balance. Often, the goal of work–life research is to improve individual, organizational, or social outcomes (e.g., work engagement, job satisfaction, job retention, life satisfaction, well-being, and equity). Although researchers often focus on how people manage the interface between paid work and family domains, researchers recognize that life involves more than the work–family duality implies. Rather, people need to navigate the expectations and boundaries of multiple life domains over time. Thus, researchers increasingly focus on work–life processes and practices (Kirby, Wieland, & McBride, 2013)—namely, the active and ongoing ways people negotiate multiple domains sequentially and simultaneously. Work–life negotiation describes the different strategies, processes, or practices people use to navigate the boundaries and expectations of multiple roles, identities, and domains with the goal of improving well-being in one or more domains, in the moment, and across the lifespan.

Three key societal trends spur academic and popular interest in work–life research: demographics, meaningful work, and evolving technologies. Shifting workforce and family demographics require scholars and practitioners to rethink assumptions about how family works in conjunction with work–life initiatives (Kirby & Buzzanell, 2014). Growing interest in purposeful, meaningful, and engaged work paradoxically encourages greater amounts of work and greater expectations of meaningful work roles (Cheney, Lair, Ritz, & Kendall, 2009). Plus, the increasing use of information and communication technologies blurs the boundaries between different domains and can lead to more work–life conflict or greater work–life control (Golden & Geisler, 2006). These trends have motivated organizations, individuals, and society to explore how effectively negotiating work–life issues can offer competitive advantages to organizations; contribute to individual well-being; and help construct a more equitable, healthy society.

The diverse labels people use to frame work–life research offer a key challenge for scholars in this area. Scholars use a broad range of overlapping and relatively ambiguous concepts including work–life balance, work–life conflict, work–family conflict, work–family collision, work–life spillover, work–family enrichment, work–family facilitation, work–life integration, work–family fit, work–family gains,and work–life effectiveness, among others. Three primary labels used to frame work–life topics are work–life balance, work–life conflict, and work–life enrichment.

Work–life balance is one of the most popular terms used by academics, the media, and the public. The concept of work–life balance highlights some of the ambiguity and implicit assumptions of the work–life literature and discourse (Kalliath & Brough, 2008; Riordan, 2013). Although the common assumption is that “work” refers to full-time, stable, paid work or employment, work may also refer to part-time work; gig, freelance, contract, or contingent work that is temporary in nature; as well as to unpaid or voluntary labor (e.g., household chores, homework, volunteering, internships). Similarly, research often uses the “traditional” family domain as a proxy for the life domain. Yet, family is more complex than the conventional nuclear family, as defined by immediate, usually biological, family members; and life involves a more diverse range of contexts and roles than the research often addresses.

Although the term “work–life balance” is widely invoked, no single definition of work–life balance exists. At least six common definitions of work–life balance frequent work–life literature. Work–life balance is defined as (a) multiple roles, (b) equal satisfaction with multiple roles, (c) satisfaction across multiple roles or domains, (d) satisfaction with salient role priorities at certain times in life, (e) situations where conflict is absent and facilitation is present, or (f) perceived control between multiple roles (Kalliath & Brough, 2008). Analysis of these six definitions reflects two key ideas—namely, that work–life balance involves perceptions of equitable, reasonable, or compatible distribution of commitments across domains and continual readjustment or growth over time depending on people’s current life priorities (Kalliath & Brough, 2008).

Scholars also regularly frame research in terms of work–life or work–family conflicts. Work–life conflict is a type of inter-role conflict in which the demands of work and family roles prove incompatible, making it difficult to meet demands at home because of work, or vice versa (Edwards & Rothbard, 2000; Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985). Conflict framings suggest that “life” will inevitably conflict with “work,” “work” will conflict with “life,” or both. Scholars shifted the terminology to emphasize work–family conflict explicitly, after recognizing that “life” often implicitly referenced domestic family roles or spheres (Özbilgin, Beauregard, Tatli, & Bell, 2011). Studies on work–life or work–family conflicts often focus on how people minimize, mitigate, avoid, or address conflicts to achieve their goals; and how organizations and societies can increase or reduce work–life conflict through policies, practices, and cultural norms.

Yet, work and life are not necessarily mutually incompatible. Work and life can be mutually beneficial, as evidenced by growing interest in positive and negative spillover. Spillover refers to the ways in which characteristics or outcomes from one domain transfer to another domain in negative or positive ways (Hanson, Hammer, & Colton, 2006). It can be tempting to view negative and positive spillover as an either-or option; however, an individual can simultaneously experience work–family conflict (negative) and work–family enhancement (positive) at the same time (Hanson et al., 2006).

Research on work–family facilitation, work–family enrichment, or positive work–family spillover describes how work and family roles may benefit each other through enhanced functioning or transfer of resources (Hanson et al., 2006). Resources may include emotions, skills, and values as well as material or social capital resources. For example, positive feelings experienced in one role (e.g., self-efficacy, motivation, positive interactions) might elevate one’s mood in another role; skills developed or successfully applied in one role may be transferred, thereby improving performance and motivation in another role; values developed in one role may also affect general values across multiple roles; or material or social resources from one role may improve quality of life or functioning in other roles (Carlson, Kacmar, Wayne, & Grzywacz, 2006; Edwards & Rothbard, 2000).

Different terms can frame the focus of research, expanding or limiting the extent to which research cross-pollinates within and across disciplines and specialties. Many researchers encourage framing this multifocused, interdisciplinary research area broadly as work–life rather than work–family, reserving specific terminology to focus an individual study. The work–life terminology remains unsatisfying to many scholars because work–life (or work/life) constructs a false dichotomy. This false dichotomy is complicated by ambiguous definitions of what counts as work, family, and life (Brough & Kalliath, 2009; Kirby & Buzzanell, 2014; Zedeck & Mosier, 1990), as well as by increasing demands for paid work to dominate all spheres of human activity (Fleming, 2014). Plus, the work–life terminology itself seems to operate as an influential variable in shaping people’s perceptions of work–life behaviors and outcomes (Carlson et al., 2006). By using terms intentionally, and by considering broader sets of keywords to consider and connect different contributions, scholars may benefit from the breadth of research across disciplines. This article primarily uses the term work–life because it is a more comprehensive term than work–family, even though it is still contested. Other terms are also used depending on the scholarship referenced. Despite the problems, work–life and work–life balance will probably continue to “serve simply as a convenient shorthand for work and the rest of life” (Guest, 2002, p. 262).

A History of Work–Life Research

Framing work and life as a dichotomy between paid employment and domestic family life has been well-established in Western cultures since the Industrial Revolution (Ciulla, 2011). Before the Industrial Revolution, work was performed by the family and situated in or near one’s home. The movement toward factory labor separated the work and home domains (Cheney et al., 2009). The transition to shift work created distinct work and home cultures with different people in different spaces, doing different activities at different times (Clark, 2000), clearly dividing “work,” or public time, from “family,” or private time in the home (Wharton, 2006). “Work” became synonymous with paid employment, and “life” referred to home, family, or other domestic responsibilities.

The dichotomous distinction between work and life is not necessary but, rather, is contingent on particular social or cultural conditions. Research on ancient, medieval, and modern work shows how “non-market” societies integrated work seamlessly into their “total cultural fabric” (Applebaum, 1992, p. 2), with a primary focus on completing the task at hand (Thompson, 1967). In contrast, “mixed” (or primarily “market”) societies tended to segregate work and nonwork aspects of life with paid work structuring people’s time and activities—a segregation made possible by the measurement of time (Thompson, 1967). Rather than being task focused, people worked for a set period of time (or a shift) that was their employers’ time rather than their “own” time (Thompson, 1967). The emergence of the salariat (salaried workers) eliminated shift work for a large class of workers, ostensibly providing freedom over time and production. Yet this freedom is often an illusion. Organizations often expect salaried workers to be present and visible at regular times (i.e., to put in face time from nine to five), rewarding those who stay longer and exceed the expectations for hourly shift work (Cheney et al., 2009).

Although interest in the interplay between work and life has roots in Aristotle (Cheney et al., 2009), contemporary academic interest in work–life issues has corresponded to demographic changes in the workforce and family—most notably, the entrance of women into the paid workforce (Kirby & Buzzanell, 2014). Through the late 20th and early 21st centuries, work and family roles in North America and Europe changed dramatically as women increasingly entered the workforce, earned degrees in higher education, and delayed marriage. These changes disrupted the gendered work–life division established during the Industrial Revolution (Barnett & Hyde, 2001). The substantial increase in women in the paid workforce did not initially spark work–life research because people attributed such domain crossing to the exceptional circumstances of both world wars. Cultural icons like Rosie the Riveter (United States) and Ruby Loftus (United Kingdom) had encouraged women to engage in paid work as part of the war effort. In 1946, the percentage of employed women declined when managers began firing women to make way for male veterans returning from the front; however, some women transferred to gender-typed work (e.g., secretaries). As the “doctrine of separate spheres” for men (at work, in public) and women (at home, in private) resurged in the 1950s (Applebaum, 1992; Perry-Jenkins, Repetti, & Crouter, 2000), women still composed about a third of the public, paid workforce. During the 1950s, many scholars, including the famed sociologist, Talcott Parsons, concluded that work and family roles were functional rather than a response to social conditions (Perry-Jenkins et al., 2000). They encouraged balance through complementary roles, with the husband specializing in market work and the wife in domestic work (Parsons, 1949). Such perspectives laid the foundation for interdisciplinary interest in the drivers and outcomes of work–life conflict for women and children. Early research on work–family conflict often assumed that engagement in multiple roles was harmful for female workers, family life, and the children of working mothers (Barnett & Hyde, 2001; Perry-Jenkins et al., 2000).

From the 1960s into the 1980s, work–life researchers primarily studied working mothers. The early literature emphasized outcomes-based sociological and psychological perspectives—in particular, how paid maternal employment might affect children’s well-being and cause distress for women who participated in so-called unnatural roles (see Barnett & Hyde, 2001 and Perry-Jenkins et al., 2000, for summaries). The “myth of separate spheres” drove the persistent assumption that female involvement in the paid workforce would jeopardize family life (Kanter, 1977). Reinforced by functionalist, psychoanalytic, and evolutionary arguments, the myth of separate spheres suggested that women have a biological imperative to prioritize the family because of their anatomy and natural “ability” to perform the key biological functions of parenthood (Barnett & Hyde, 2001). Research in the 1980s evolved to include more disciplinary and theoretical perspectives (Menaghan & Parcel, 1990); however, scholars continued to focus on the effects of maternal employment on family life and children’s well-being, even as empirical evidence challenged the assumptions of inherent gender difference (Eagly & Crowley, 1986) and the expectation that women would experience distress from occupying multiple roles (Barnett & Baruch, 1985). As work–family issues became a more clearly defined field of research, scholars began to recognize that fathers could also experience work–family conflict (Menaghan & Parcel, 1990; Perry-Jenkins et al., 2000). Yet work–life conflict continued to be framed primarily as a motherhood, and therefore a female issue, especially since working women continued to bear an unequal share of unpaid household and parental labor—the problem central to Arlie Hochschild’s (1989) influential book The Second Shift.

In the 1990s, the growing use of communication technologies, along with social and economic changes, influenced work–life research and practice profoundly (Perry-Jenkins et al., 2000). As the Internet grew in popularity alongside pagers and mobile Internet-connected devices, the physical and temporal boundaries of work changed—particularly for white-collar workers. New and emerging mobile communication technologies meant work could happen almost anywhere and anytime. As technology blurred the lines separating domains, people increasingly used technology to help manage work demands and life demands even as research attention stressed the negative spillover as technology bled work into family but also family into work. Contemporary scholars increasingly appreciate the bidirectional and interdependent nature of domain commitments and roles: Job stress can influence families and family stress can influence the workplace (Perry-Jenkins et al., 2000).

Finally, the main body of scholarship began to reflect that multiple roles could enhance well-being—a perspective supported decades earlier by the empirical literature. As women’s participation in the workforce continued to climb, pressure grew to consider social and policy issues that could mitigate work–family conflict and enable work–family balance through family-friendly policies, division of household labor, and pay equity (Barnett & Hyde, 2001). Research on family-friendly policies tended to center on the United States, where such policies are often left to market forces rather than being established by the state as part of the common good (which could then be potentially complemented by organizational initiatives). Continued focus on outcomes during the 1990s led scholars to evaluate whether family-friendly policies such as parental leave, flexible schedules, and childcare benefits offered benefits to the organizational bottom line. The goal: Making a business case and social case for work–life initiatives (Grover & Crooker, 1995).

Communication scholars consistently publish work–life scholarship, since the first mention of work–family in the Electronic Journal of Communication in 2000. By addressing Communication Perspectives on Work–Family’, the special issue framed communication as crucial to work–life negotiation, from micro- to macro-level processes” (Golden, 2000). Authors envisaged such topics as how people manage boundaries; handle mixed messages; use communication technologies; and adjudicate cultural and organizational ideologies of individualism, gender, and the primacy of work. Such research foci continue in the early 21st century. Contemporary communication scholars continue to study whether and how people negotiate work–life accommodations with what effects. Researchers often find that the organizational culture or occupational roles (e.g., entrepreneur) affect whether workers negotiate for accommodations, the likelihood workers will receive accommodations, and the consequences for organizational outcomes as well as for individual well-being and careers (Kirby & Buzzanell, 2014). Research also continues to focus on maternity leave negotiations, although research on paternity leave (Duckworth & Buzzanell, 2009; Johansson, 2011; Kotsadam & Finseraas, 2011) and more general work–life accommodations (Lauzun, Morganson, Major, & Green, 2010) surfaces. Scholars increasingly recognize that life responsibilities can extend beyond conventional family commitments, and that such commitments are not exclusively fulfilled by women.

Contemporary work–life research by communication scholars often emphasizes the micro- and macro-effects of individuals, cultures, and technologies on work–life practices and outcomes (Kirby & Buzzanell, 2014). For example at more micro levels, scholars often examine the mundane routines and practices people use to manage work–life issues (Clark, 2000). Mundane routines and practices ideally simplify but, ironically, may complicate work–life management and undermine work–life goals (Ashforth, Kreiner, & Fugate, 2000). People may use different communication routines or practices to manage boundaries (Kossek, Lautsch, & Eaton, 2005; Kossek, Ruderman, Braddy, & Hannum, 2012). Such practices are further complicated when people work from home or live at work (e.g., in jail).

Communication scholars often scrutinize how communication technology affects work–life because how people use and make sense of technology to manage boundaries can produce different outcomes. New technologies may allow work commitments to bleed into family life because of persistent and interrelated compulsions to be connected to technology and to work; conversely new technologies may allow greater flexibility allowing people to prioritize urgent or important work or family commitments as they emerge (Golden, 2013; Golden & Geisler, 2006). A substantial portion of communication-oriented work–life research draws on critical or feminist perspectives on socialization into, and the cultural reinforcement of, the ideal worker (Lair, Sullivan, & Cheney, 2005); the primacy of work (Thompson, 1967); and gendered norms (Kirby & Buzzanell, 2014). These emphases provide a counterpoint to ongoing interest in outcomes-oriented research and complement work–life research across disciplines.

More recent research focuses on the informal practical processes by which people negotiate everyday work–life issues (Kirby et al., 2003; Kossek et al., 2005; Medved, 2004); the influence of communication technologies on work–life management (Golden, 2013); the role of time and flexibility (Skinner & Pocock, 2008); the shifting diversity of the workforce and families (Wharton, 2006); and the persistent need to examine work–life issues in non-Western nations (e.g., Lee Siew Kim & Seow Ling, 2001). Scholars also increasingly consider how differences in national cultural ideologies affect whether governments support families via policies and programs or defer to organizations to ease the burden on families (den Dulk, Groeneveld, Ollier-Malaterre, & Valcour, 2013; Kirby & Buzzanell, 2014). There is ongoing pressure to recognize that work–life issues are relevant beyond female, heterosexual, and dual-career situations, because gender remains an important but not a singular factor (Wharton, 2006). Scholars increasingly emphasize that the work–life interface involves more than managing the work and family domains and that work–life spillover can create positive and negative effects, sometimes simultaneously (Hanson, Hammer, & Colton, 2006).

Despite complementary interests among scholars across disciplines, much work–life research continues to be siloed: as different disciplines have focused on different topics and have developed distinct citation networks. Such limited cross-pollination undermines the benefits that arise from interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations. Researchers may recognize that work–life issues involve more than family responsibilities, but limited empirical scholarship addresses other life roles, commitments, and interests (e.g., community, leisure, volunteer, student, citizen; for exceptions, see Pocock et al., 2012). Despite these challenges, work–life scholarship continues to be a vibrant, interdisciplinary, theoretically and practically relevant research area in which researchers work to understand the factors that influence whether and how people negotiate work–life interfaces across the lifespan, and with what consequences.

Motivations for Work–Life Research

Work–life research is often fueled by demographic, economic, or moral factors (Kirby & Buzzanell, 2014). Demographic changes continue to operate as a primary motivation for work–life research. For example, in the early 21st century, many countries are experiencing increased cultural, racial, and ethnic diversity in their workforces; changing definitions of what counts as “a family”; and growing pressures for eldercare complicated by family structures with fewer siblings to share support needs, who are separated greater geographic distances, as well as limited access to community support services. These shifting definitions and social structures alter implicit assumptions of work and family domains and highlight complex needs and shifting norms and expectations. Correspondingly, these changes alter how people manage work–life negotiations and the outcomes they experience, which fuels further work–life research and interventions (Carlson et al., 2006).

Economic factors also motivate interest in work–life research as scholars increasingly focus on the business case for work–life initiatives (Beauregard & Henry, 2009). Organizations often express interest in work–life accommodations if managers believe those accommodations will prove financially advantageous directly (e.g., increased productivity) or indirectly (e.g., increased organizational commitment and identification, job satisfaction, and organizational reputation, and lower turnover). Yet economic motivations may undermine development of work–life policies by organizations—especially in highly competitive industries, extreme job situations, organizational or occupational cultures that prioritize work over other life domains, or pay-and-promotion structures designed around billable hours or pay-for-performance systems that reward time on task rather than other measures of employee value (Kirby & Buzzanell, 2014; Kuhn, 2006).

Finally, moral arguments spur work–life research and interventions. Moral arguments often appeal to ideals of equality, human dignity, and quality of life to encourage organizations to let people craft fulfilling and purposeful lives and to contribute to more equitable societies (Buzzanell & Lucas, 2013; Sirgy, Michalos, Ferriss, Easterlin, Patrick, & Pavot, 2006). As contemporary scholars and the general public emphasize the value of looking at life—meaningful life—holistically (Buzzanell & Lucas, 2013; Sirgy et al., 2006), they call forth classic ideals including Plato’s and Aristotle’s considerations of “the good life” (Cheney et al., 2009). Such valuing of meaningful life often includes measuring work–life effectiveness based on indicators of “happiness,” “quality-of-life,” engagement, and other aspects of individual and social well-being. Contemporary moral appeals for work–life research emphasize human dignity (Buzzanell & Lucas, 2013) and the multifaceted complexity of life, which extends beyond traditional definitions of work and family that originated in the Industrial Revolution.

Theoretical Perspectives

Scholars and the popular press wield varied conceptual frames to explain the work–life interface. In his study of work–life research, organizational psychologist David Guest (2002) identified common frames in the work–life discourse. Role frames draw on role theory and view everyday work–life issues as manifestations of how people enact socially defined roles and expectations. Conflict frames assume that multiple domains of life will experience high demands and consequently create conflicts, overload, and the need to make difficult choices. Segmentation frames assume that paid work and the rest of life are distinct domains that do not (or should not) influence each other. Spillover frames assume that emotions, behavior, and resources in one domain can influence another domain positively or negatively. Compensation frames propose that people can compensate for what is lacking in one domain in another domain. Finally, instrumental frames assert that activities in one domain are used to help or simplify another domain.

Conceptual frames offer metaphors for what people consider possible and desirable actions when they are deciding how to negotiate the work–life interface and how to achieve work–life goals (e.g., balance, resilience). The persistent use of a frame or set of frames may blind people to alternative or more complex understandings of the relationships, experiences, negotiations, and outcomes of work–life issues (e.g., compensation and spillover can happen simultaneously; Zedeck & Mosier, 1990). Thus, scholars increasingly emphasize the need for well-developed theoretical models that appreciate the complex relationship between work–life domains and the management of work–life issues. Three well-developed theoretical perspectives that continue to be influential in work–life research across disciplines are role theory, sensemaking, and border and boundary theories.

Role theory has long guided work–life research, particularly in sociology and social psychological studies (cf. social identity theory, social role Biddle, 1956). Role theory explains how people act based on the expectations for appropriate behavior within a particular role (e.g., father, friend, secretary) and how people manage multiple roles. Roles are shaped by norms that guide people’s behavior in relation to tasks, goals, performances, and the social groups to which people belong. People send, receive, and reinforce expectations for different roles based on an implicit consensus about what constitutes appropriate or inappropriate behavior for a particular role (Biddle, 1956). These expectations can become codified in the formal rules and reward structures of the organization (Katz & Kahn, 1978), and they are also reinforced implicitly or explicitly via interactions, as people engage in role taking and role making. From a role theory perspective, work–life negotiation often involves identifying and changing normative expectations about how a specific role should work. In the work–life literature, role theory is generally applied in terms of role stress theory and role expansion theory.

Building a scarcity perspective, role stress theory focuses on the negative implications of occupying multiple roles. Because of limited psychological, physiological, and material resources, people need to make trade-offs to reduce role strain (Aryee, Srinivas, & Tan, 2005)—especially when they are faced with role ambiguity or demanding roles (Kahn, Wolfe, Quinn, Snoek, & Rosenthal, 1964). Role stress theory assumes that conflict exists between the distinct, often competing expectations about the obligations of work and family roles. Therefore, a substantial body of research focuses on role conflict (Biddle, 1956; Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985; Kahn et al., 1964). Role conflict scholarship tends to frame work–family issues as inter-role conflicts in which the pressures of participating in the work role become more difficult because of the pressures of participating in the family role, or vice versa (Greenhaus & Beutell, 1985). Role conflict is increasingly evident when people have limited control over one or more roles and may result in negative outcomes directed from work to family, family to work, or both (Zedeck & Mosier, 1990). Work–to-family and family-to-work conflicts can also be reciprocal (e.g., job stress can increase family stress, which then leads to increased job stress; Aryee et al., 2005; Frone, Russell, & Cooper, 1992; Mesmer-Magnus & Viswesvaran, 2008).

In contrast, role expansion theory proposes that multiple roles provide benefits (e.g., privileges, status, security, personal growth), which can facilitate role performance by increasing an individual’s instrumental, psychological, and social resources (Marks, 1977; Sieber, 1974). Although early work–life research on work–life issues focused on the anticipated distress for women with multiple roles, recent studies offer substantial evidence that multiple roles can prove beneficial by providing increased financial resources, as well as increased resilience via broader social support networks, greater self-complexity, increased opportunities for success and a broader frame of reference (Barnett & Gareis, 2006). Longitudinal studies offer greater support for role expansion than role stress (Nordenmark, 2004); however, most scholars believe that role stress and role expansion operate simultaneously, if unequally. Contemporary role-theory approaches focus on how to integrate work and family to create net resource gains in four ways, by (a) changing role expectations; (b) addressing normative gender roles and idealized worker roles (Williams, Berdahl, & Vandello, 2016); (c) offering tools, policies, and other interventions to help people routinize, improvise, and restructure everyday actions; and (d) engaging in interactions that mitigate role conflict, enhance role enactment, and increase available resources (Medved, 2004; Mesmer-Magnus & Viswesvaran, 2008; Pocock et al., 2012).

Sensemaking approaches to work–life issues focus on how people make sense of or give meaning to work–life situations and phenomena (Kirby & Buzzanell, 2014). The meanings people construct matter because they define what counts as possible and desirable behavior. Psychologist Karl Weick (1979, 1995) originally used the term “sensemaking” to help explain organizing processes; however, sensemaking has demonstrated its relevance to a wide range of topics (e.g., change, education, leadership, management, racism). Sensemaking helps people structure complex, ambiguous phenomena into “a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words that serves as a springboard into action” (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005, p. 409). Weick likened sensemaking to cartography or mapmaking, noting, however, that “what we map depends on where we look, what factors we choose to focus on, and what terrain we decide to represent. Therefore, making sense is more than an act of analysis; it’s an act of creativity” (Ancona, Malone, Orlikowski, & Senge, 2007, p. 95).

A useful map of a work–life phenomenon depends on one’s goals. It requires creating an adequate representation of the complexities of the current situation and communicating that map to others in simple ways (Ancona, 2011). Sensemaking generally starts when a discrepancy triggers the need to interpret and explain a phenomenon in order to know how to act. Within work–life research, the trigger is often a threat to one’s identity (e.g., what does it mean to be a good working mother? a good working father?). The trigger may also be an event (e.g., job loss, promotion, adoption, chronic illness; Buzzanell, Meisenbach, Remke, Liu, Bowers, & Conn, 2005). Consequently, sensemaking is needed when people’s understanding of the world no longer works. People are then confronted with adaptive challenges rather than technical problems (Heifetz, Grashow, & Linsky, 2009). Adaptive challenges require responses that are outside a person’s existing repertoire of capacities and behaviors, whereas technical problems involve adapting one’s existing repertoire to a new context (Leiter, Gascón, Martinez, & Jarreta, 2010). Thus sensemaking involves “a process of constant redefinition” (Weick, 1995, p. 20), focused on establishing and maintaining one’s identity (or identities) as a person, group, or organization frames what counts as possible and appropriate behavior.

Communication scholars often highlight how communication shapes a sensemaking perspective and practice. Communication scholar Erika Kirby (2000) foregrounded sensemaking when she analyzed the different ways in which workers make sense of the mixed or contradictory messages they receive from supervisors about how to negotiate work–life issues (e.g., “Should I do as you say or do as you do?”). Kirby’s work anticipates how people respond to everyday work–life challenges or desires for work–life balance—namely, whether people will routinize, improvise, or restructure behavior depending on the trigger and their sensemaking of the situation (Medved, 2004). In contrast, scholars in management and psychology often focus on the outcomes of sensemaking for organizations or individuals. Research on nurses and doctors in Spain suggests that burnout does not simply result from overload, but is mediated by a sensemaking “crisis in which employees view the workplace to be at odds with their core values.” Concordantly, people’s sensemaking may transform fatigue into “exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficiency,” thereby undermining organizational productivity and individual well-being (Leiter et al., 2010, p. 61) Although work–life scholars tend to use sensemaking theory less than role theory, sensemaking represents a broader shift in the social sciences toward considering how people’s meaning-making processes affect work–life experiences, practices, and outcomes. Complementary meaning-centered approaches (cf. phenomenology, symbolic interactionism) also emphasize how communication helps construct people’s meaning of work–life phenomena in ways that shape experiences and behaviors in adaptive and maladaptive ways.

Work–family border theory and boundary theories focus on how people manage transitions between different domains in order to simplify, order, and control their lives (Ashforth et al., 2000; Clark, 2000; Demerouti, 2014). Two key theories that explain how people manage the boundaries between life domains are work–family border theory and boundary theory. Both theories assume that separating work and family domains simplifies border management, even as integrating work and family facilitates border transitions. Thus, separation and integration can be beneficial strategies, depending on individual personalities and preferences; organizational and cultural contexts (e.g., workplace and family norms and policies); and the fit between the preferences and boundaries of particular social contexts (Desrochers & Sargent, 2004; Kossek, Noe, & DeMarr, 1999).

Developed by Sue Campbell Clark (2000), work/family border theory focuses on how people manage and negotiate family and work spheres and the boundaries between them daily and over time. Work/family border theory assumes that work and family systems have developed different cultures and purposes since the Industrial Revolution, yet the two domains are mutually influential—namely, family influences work and work influences family. When people cross the borders between work and family spheres, they work to proactively shape their work and family domains by negotiating and communicating boundaries and expectations with relevant others (e.g., supervisors, family members). The goal of work/family border theory is to achieve balance, defined as “satisfaction and good functioning at work and at home, with a minimum of role conflict” (Clark, 2000, p. 751). For some people, daily border crossings between work and family require more transitions, and thus more work and resources, because of the unique rules, thought patterns, and behaviors in one’s different domains.

Borders define the physical, temporal, and psychological points at which the rules and norms for one domain end and those of another begin. Borders vary in their degree of permeability depending on the extent to which aspects of one domain (e.g., rules, behaviors, and information) can influence another domain. Borders can also be more or less flexible depending on the extent to which a boundary merges or segments aspects of different domains. When borders are highly permeable and flexible (e.g., home businesses, telecommuting), blending or integration occurs. When borders are less permeable or less flexible, segmentation or clear separation between domains is more likely (Clark, 2000). Various individual and contextual factors (e.g., preferences; personalities; occupational, organizational, or national culture) influence whether segmentation or integration is preferred and more adaptive. Greater temporal, physical, or psychological segmentation, or some combination thereof, can reduce intrusive work thoughts and improve well-being, lowering burnout among people who are cynical about their workplaces (Demerouti, 2014) or who prefer to segment work from home. Yet even as role segmentation may help reduce work–life conflict, role segmentation may unintentionally reduce the likelihood of positive work–life spillover (Powell & Greenhaus, 2010).

Work–family conflict can be mitigated. In particular, frequent communication with, and support from, primary border keepers in each domain can help alleviate work–family conflict. Border keepers are individuals who have considerable influence in defining borders and border crossings (e.g., a supervisor or a spouse). When the degree of difference between domains is less, or when work offers greater flexibility, people experience less work–life conflict and, correspondingly, fewer negative outcomes, such as burnout (Demerouti, 2014). Supportive communication and interdependency between domains, as well as autonomy and flexibility at work, all improve work–life balance and minimize work–life conflict (Lambert, Kass, Piotrowski, & Vodanovich, 2006). Individuals with increased autonomy and the operational flexibility to determine when and how work is done also report more functional family lives and a better sense of work–family balance (Behson, 2002).

A related theory, boundary theory, also focuses on how people manage the boundaries between roles. Boundary management focuses on how people segregate, integrate, or blur the boundaries between different domains, with what effects (Ashforth et al., 2000). Boundary theory considers macrolevel transitions (e.g., promotion, retirement, new parenthood) and microlevel transitions (e.g., telecommuter switching from parent to spouse to work role throughout the day) as one switches roles over time (Ashforth, 2001). In contrast to work/family border theory, boundary theory looks at role transitions more broadly. Even as boundary theory offers a promising direction for thinking about work–life issues more comprehensively, most of this scholarship continues to focus on work/family or work–home conflict and balance.

Effective boundary management is key to achieving “balanced” or desirable relationships between life domains (Nippert-Eng, 1996). Scholars have focused attention on boundary-management styles and skills because these factors influence effective boundary management. For example, Kossek and Lautsch’s (2012) typology posits that people tend toward one of three boundary-management styles: integrator, separator, or alternating between the two. The preferred style depends on one’s preferences for flexible, permeable, symmetrical, or directional boundary crossings, the centrality of one’s work or family identities, and the work–family climate of one’s employment organization (Kossek et al., 2005). The extent to which one can enact a management style that aligns one’s preferences and skills helps to moderate the level of conflict.

Studies informed by boundary theory or work/family border theory suggest that integration may help people balance work and family life, but only to a degree. If work and family domains become too integrated and the boundary becomes blurred or ambiguous, it can result in conflict, stress, and work or life dissatisfaction. Complete segmentation is not necessarily beneficial either (Desrochers & Sargent, 2004). Boundary crossers and boundary keepers can use various strategies to minimize the degree of work–family conflict. For example, supervisors can reduce excessive boundary blurring (and its negative consequences) by supporting flexible schedules to accommodate family needs or by respecting employees’ telecommuting or flex schedules (Demerouti, 2014). Boundary crossers can manage border crossings and boundary expectations by keeping people aware of their commitments to multiple domains. People manage border expectations and crossings by using other people (e.g., having staff members screen calls) and technology (e.g., caller ID, voicemail, vacation messages); invoking triage (e.g., prioritizing urgent items); establishing physical spaces (e.g., setting up a distinct home office), confronting violators, and allowing for differential permeability from work to home or from home to work depending on the situation or need (Kreiner, Hollensbe, & Sheep, 2009).

Research Trends and Challenges

What Are the Implications of Framing Work–Life as a Dichotomy?

Scholars continue to critique the work–life dichotomy. One key critique is that the ongoing use of the term work–life (or work–family) continues to reinforce an implicit agenda that tends to polarize that which is “work” and that which is “life” (Guest, 2002). Binary constructions encourage people to continue to frame primary responsibilities in terms of expected time, space, and gender roles (Kirby & Buzzanell, 2014). Such binary distinctions also situate work as a sphere outside of life. Ironically, the work–life binary may also create a false sense of multiple life spheres, despite the persistent incursion of workplace production demands across all spheres of human activity and identity (Fleming, 2014; Land & Taylor, 2010). Despite attempts to identify alternative nonbinary framings, work–life persists as a shorthand for how people negotiate different roles, domains, and identities (Guest, 2002).

Thus researchers have made the work–life binary a primary focus of study, questioning the implicit assumptions in popular and scholarly definitions of what counts as work and what counts as life. The work–life binary originally distinguished paid (factory) work from unpaid (domestic) work based on time, space, compensation, and, often, gender. Such divides between work and nonwork spheres was made possible by the advent of watches and clocks and the ability to measure and control time with greater precision (Thompson, 1967). “Work,” then, became explicitly associated with paid, often full-time employment, idealized in the nine-to-five “organization man.” Such assumptions persist despite growing recognition that family and domestic responsibilities, part-time work, gig work, contingent work, and internships constitute different forms of labor that receive lower pay or no pay. However, when attention is placed on the assumptions that frame work as paid employment, taken-for-granted boundaries between work and life, or “nonwork,” begin to break down. Consider unpaid hours, ongoing career and occupational development tasks, extreme work, commuting, and work travel, as well as more difficult problems when the borders between work and home become more porous because of the nature of the occupation (e.g., farmers, hoteliers, members of military, entrepreneurs, small business owners) or the increasing use of mobile communication technologies to coordinate gig work (e.g., Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit). These factors all complicate the implicit notion of work as paid employment because conventional concepts of what counts as work, in work–life scholarship tend to assume full-time, stable employment, often in white-collar occupations.

Common conceptualizations of what counts as life also begin to break down on further examination. Conventional work–life perspectives often assume that everything outside of paid employment constitutes life. Yet most scholarship operationalizes life in terms of home-and-family domains, even as empirical research suggests that people’s different roles and domains make up part of a bigger open, intertwined system (Guest, 2002). Not only do popular and scholarly framings predominantly suggest that “family is the fundamental component of life beyond paid work, family is often framed in terms of the responsibilities around parenting young children. Yet the continued use of the term “life” as a proxy for “family,” particularly the nuclear family, creates a myopic view of life as family. The myopia hinders considerations of how vacations, volunteering, leisure, and friendships contribute to quality of life. Researchers have examined work–life initiatives for workers who are single and do not have children (Lewis, Gambles, & Rapoport, 2007) because organizational policies often favor flexibility toward parents caring for young children (Hoffman & Cowan, 2010). Yet parents may not feel free to use such policies (Kirby et al., 2003). Still, work–life scholars have yet to give substantial attention to these other life dimensions, such as volunteering, extended leaves of absence from work, or enactments of leisure, free time, and vacation time. There are some exceptions. Research on work–life conflict among volunteers in Australia found that higher levels of work–life conflict increased turnover and decreased volunteer satisfaction (Cowlishaw, Birch, McLennan, & Hayes, 2014).

Demographic and social shifts continue to alter the composition and qualification of what constitutes a family. Friends may play a more substantial role when extended family members live far away. Many children grow up in single-parent households; other children grow up with two parents of the same biological sex. Thus, scholars increasingly argue for a more “realistic definition of family” that “would include all others who meet certain needs or functions formerly thought to be met by the family; this is a functional, or effective, rather than a ‘traditional’ or legal definition of family” (Rothausen, 1999, p. 820). Even as such scholarship continues to push scholars and the public to consider broader notions of work, life, and family, the work–life binary persists in the ways people frame, experience, and manage competing identities, roles, and domains that do not fit into normative ideals of what constitutes work, life, or family.

What Drives Work–Life Outcomes?

A substantial portion of work–life scholarship continues to study individual, organizational, and societal outcomes (e.g., stress, job satisfaction, life satisfaction, productivity, general well-being). Psychologists and sociologists have been particularly interested in outcomes-based research. Outcomes-based research often categorizes outcomes as (a) positive versus negative; (b) work, nonwork, family, or general well-being; (c) individual, organizational, or societal; and more recently (d) short-term versus long-term. Researchers often emphasize outcomes related to negative work–family connections (i.e., work–family conflict) or positive work–family connections (i.e., work–family enrichment or facilitation) even though research suggests that work–life conflict and work–life enhancement operate differently and simultaneously (McNall et al., 2010). Meta-analyses highlight scholarly interest in work outcomes (e.g., job satisfaction, absenteeism, burnout, performance), family outcomes (e.g., marital satisfaction, marital quality), and general life satisfaction or well-being outcomes (e.g., stress, well-being, depression, substance abuse; Frone, Russell, & Barnes, 1996; Lapierre & Allen, 2006).

Generally, less conflict and more enhancement results in net positive gains for individuals as well as organizations. Less work–family conflict has been linked to improved measures of health (e.g., body mass index [BMI] scores, cholesterol level); and reports of psychological and physical well-being and positive job outcomes (e.g., job satisfaction, performance, and intention to stay; Frone et al., 1992; van Steenbergen, Ellemers, & Mooijaart, 2009). Empirical evidence from a work–family enrichment perspective often identifies the positive outcomes when work spills over into family or family spills over into work, evidenced by increased job satisfaction, affective commitment to the organization, and family satisfaction (McNall et al., 2010). Generally, work-to-family enrichment is more strongly related to work-related variables (e.g., job satisfaction), and family-to-work enrichment is more strongly related to family-related variables (e.g., family satisfaction);both contribute to general measures of well-being (McNall et al., 2010; Haar, Russo, Suñe, & Ollier-Malaterre, 2014). Research on workers in China found that demands and resources relate to role satisfaction regardless of whether demands or resources originate in one’s family or one’s work role; however, demands tend to more strongly predict conflict and resources tend to more strongly predict enrichment (Lu, Chang, Kao, & Cooper, 2015).

Scholars also regularly consider the underlying drivers or antecedents of work–life outcomes—namely, whether such outcomes result from conflict, enhancement, or both. Much of this research focuses on the demands and resources available within and across domains. At an individual level, a person’s access to material, temporal, and psychological resources, as well as a sense of agency, can mitigate negative outcomes of work–life conflicts and encourage work–life balance and other positive outcomes (ten Brummelhuis & Bakker, 2012). Moreover, individual resources within one domain can provide resources in other domains. Communication and boundary management competencies offer a key set of individual resources necessary for positive work–life outcomes. For example, scholars who study telecommuting, technology-assisted work, or homeworkers find that people who proactively manage balance, minimize interference, and set clear goals and priorities experience more positive work–life outcomes from at-home work or telecommuting (Breaugh & Farabee, 2012; Fenner & Renn, 2009). Other factors such as people’s personalities, work–life preferences, and alignment with the organizational culture help predict work–life outcomes, as does people’s framing of individual, family, or organizational behaviors and intentions (Byron, 2005).

Organizational resources, context, and the culture practiced by one’s immediate supervisor can influence work–life outcomes. Scholars and the popular press have paid particular attention to the availability and use of organizational policies and initiatives, whether state-sponsored or market driven. Organizational or national policies influence work–life outcomes, although not always in predictable ways. Meta-analyses generally find that human resource factors, such as the availability and use of family-friendly policies (e.g., dependent care, flexible schedules), increased employees’ job satisfaction, affective organizational commitment, and their intention to stay at the organization (e.g., Butts, Casper, & Yang, 2013). Along with actual and perceived agency, such organizational factors influence people’s sense of work–life balance. Unfortunately, the availability of policies or initiatives does not mean workers will use the policies. People avoid using family-friendly policies if the use of such policies is viewed negatively (i.e., if policy users are seen as less committed and therefore less worthy of rewards; Kirby & Krone, 2002; Leslie, Manchester, Park, & Mehng, 2012), or, if the policy is not effectively or sufficiently disseminated as intended (Canary, Riforgiate, & Montoya, 2013). People’s skillfulness at communicatively managing the contradictions, ironies, and indignities embedded in many work–life policies are essential to negotiating desirable and resilient work–life outcomes as an individual (Buzzanell & Liu, 2005; Buzzanell, Shenoy-Packer, Remke, & Lucas, 2009).

Organizational culture and norms also affect work–life outcomes. For example, if an organization expects workers to check emails, answer calls, and stay late, workers are more likely to experience conflict unless they are able to adjudicate the competing demands of work and life through effective boundary management or other work–life negotiations. Inspired by the policies and culture at Orange, a telecommunications company, a new labor law in France gives workers the “right to disconnect” from email by limiting the specific hours of the week when organizational emails can be sent and received. Some companies go as far as to turn off their email systems overnight to enforce the boundary and to give people the opportunity to find the balance between private and work life (Wang, 2017).

Scholars also consider how demographic factors may moderate work–life outcomes, in particular whether sex differences (i.e., male versus female) affect the work–life interface. Typically, women experience greater family pressure at work, likely because of social pressures associated with the different normative behaviors for men and women (Ahmad, King, & Anderson, 2013). Research on managers in 26 countries found that supervisors’ appraisals of female employees differed based on whether the national culture was classified as high or low in egalitarianism (Lyness & Judiesch, 2014). The ongoing pressure from unequal and unpaid domestic labor also increases demands on and decreases time for women (Hochschild, 1989). More recently, scholars have studied how life-stage affects work–life outcomes, finding that national culture and the responsibilities and demands of different life or career stages (e.g., young parenthood, older adulthood, retirement) result in different needs and outcomes for work–life initiatives (Ammons & Kelly, 2008; Demerouti, Peeters, & van der Heijden, 2012; Martinengo, Jacob, & Hill, 2010). Other factors, such as social and occupational class, also likely predict work–life resources and demands—and by extension, work–life conflict or facilitation; however, work–life research centered on class issues remains underdeveloped despite repeated calls address its relationship with well-being, resilience, and the work–life interface (Buzzanell et al., 2009; Damaske, 2011).

A growing body of research also considers the effect of national context on work–life outcomes. Specifically, scholars study how state or national work–life initiatives affect organizational work–life initiatives—a relationship that remains unclear. For example, some organizations seem to offer fewer work–life initiatives when the state provides greater work–life resources (Kossek, 2015; Ollier-Malaterre, 2007). Other organizations often complement state-provided resources with different work–life programs and policies not available from state resources (den Dulk, Groeneveld, & Peper, 2013; den Dulk, Peters, & Poutsma, 2012). Institutional pressure (i.e., generous public provisions and pressures in terms of organizational legitimacy in the economy) can help create more normative, coercive pressure on organizations to institute work–life initiatives, especially when the labor market is tight (den Dulk et al., 2012). What remains clear in these ongoing and emerging research areas is the importance of relating work–life outcomes and drivers to individual factors, as well as to organizational, social, and cultural contexts (Kossek, 2015).

How Do Ideals Shape Work–Life Issues?

Ideals have long shaped work–life research, especially the work–life dichotomy and social pressures for women to prioritize “family” or “life” domains and men to prioritize “work” domains. A long history of research on how culture produces and reinforces ideals continues to shape work–life research trajectories. In particular, scholars have emphasized how national cultures construct the notion of the ideal worker, privilege work, and reinforce norms of motherhood or fatherhood in productive or problematic ways. Broadly informed by sensemaking, the discursive turn, and critical theory, scholars have questioned dominant ideologies about how work works; how people are socialized into roles; and how work and parental identities are gendered (Kirby & Buzzanell, 2014, for summary).

Scholarship examining the ideals and ideologies implicated in the work–life interface considers how people create and reinforce assumptions about how work and family function. A substantial portion of research focuses on how work is framed as the primary role or domain in the work–life dynamic such that workers can never do enough to fulfill the ideals of the “no limits” contemporary career (Lucas, Liu, & Buzzanell, 2006; Wieland, 2011). Consequently, people engage in longer hours for higher pay, despite expressing concerns that they have no time to spend the money they earn, because they need to have a “real job,” to achieve “success,” “be professional,” and fulfill their purpose (Cheney et al., 2009). Workers who embody the notion of the ideal worker (i.e., long hours, high pay,) tend to derive greater amounts of self-esteem and identity from their work. Pressures from embodying the value system of the ideal worker results in greater intrusions of work into life and, consequently, disruptions of work–life balance and lessened resilience when workers are faced with a disruptive work experience (e.g., transfers, layoffs, retirement, unemployment). The ideal worker is often constructed as male, white, and middle-class, with an at-home wife able to manage domestic responsibilities while the man privileges work commitments (Lair et al., 2005). Organizational cultures also regulate workers’ identities through policies and social practices (Alvesson & Willmott, 2002). This regulation is exemplified by the contrast between firms that reinforce a demented work ethic versus firms that might encourage more balanced or integrated work–life commitments (i.e., a lifestyle firm; Kuhn, 2006). Such demented work ethics become even more challenging for adjuncts, gig workers, and other members of the precariat who feel the need to work whenever work is available, often to make ends meet or to maintain the reputation necessary for income generation (Standing, 2016). Popular culture also reinforces the primacy of work: For example, self-improvement books and autobiographies encourage self-development and self-sacrifice for the sake of paid employment, rather than investing time and energy into alternative life roles, domains, or goals (Dempsey & Sanders, 2010).

Research on the social construction of gender identities also remains a primary focus of work–life research (Medved, 2010). Broadly speaking, social construction refers to the communicative and psychological processes by which people create shared assumptions about how the world works. Scholars continue to focus on contemporary ideals of motherhood given popular concerns about women opting out of the workforce, persistent inequalities in unpaid household labor, pay inequity, the consequences of taking maternity leave, and other material and social penalties. There is ongoing and growing interest in helping women escape the double-bind created by societal assumptions that women should perform unpaid family care and nurture others; yet, violating norms that women demonstrate nurturing or warmth at work can still undermine assessments of competence and corresponding rewards as can demonstrating too much nurturing and warmth (e.g., pay, promotion; Buzzanell et al., 2005). Emerging research on fatherhood and paternity leave suggests that violating gender norms can also be problematic for men, though the social and financial penalties are often not as severe (Duckworth & Buzzanell, 2009).

Complementary and growing research comparing different national cultural ideals around work and family identities suggest that such expectations of work as the primary role, though persistent, are neither universal nor fixed. People are socialized into the ideal notions of acceptable and appropriate work, family, and other role behaviors via the direct, indirect, ambient, and memorable messages received across their lifespans. For example, children learn about work and ideal gender roles via dinner table conversations (Paugh, 2005), popular culture, friends, family members, teachers, and others (Buzzanell, Berkelaar, & Kisselburgh, 2011). Such messages also reinforce notions of how parenthood works—with girls often encouraged to prioritize family (and eventual motherhood) even when making early career decisions. People make different career and occupational decisions based, in part, on their ideas about whether an occupation is desirable or acceptable for their gender (Helwig, 2004).

Ideals continue to matter to the study and practice of work–life issues because they shape what people consider possible, appropriate, and desirable behavior. Ideals shape occupational choices, as well as supervisors’ and co-workers’ evaluations. Consequently, ideals influence access to promotions, raises, and career capital opportunities. Ideals also shape people’s perceptions of work–family conflict or work–family enrichment. Professional women often feel more guilt and resentment than their male counterparts about focusing on career accomplishments, progress, or financial rewards (Meisenbach, 2010a). Scholars often blame societal ideals for cultures of overwork, the unequal burdens women face with respect to their domestic and family responsibilities, and the consequent health, career, and family costs (Hochschild, 1989; Hochschild & Machung, 2012). This ongoing focus on social and cultural ideals is designed to identify problematic ideals; to encourage positive social change toward more productive and equitable ideals; and to provide individuals with skills to develop and manage multiple identities in pursuit of a coherent self (Kirby & Buzzanell, 2014).

How Do Individuals Negotiate Everyday Work–Life Issues?

Scholars also continue to attend to the everyday practices people use to resolve work–life conflicts or gain work–life enhancements (e.g., skills, competencies, tactics, or strategies). Such everyday work–life negotiations achieve greater or lesser success depending on a variety of individual, organizational, and social factors (e.g., norms, ideals, national initiatives) that affect whether and how people choose to approach work–life management. Scholars frequently categorize the practices people use to manage work–life issues in one of five approaches: coping, cognitive appraisal, sensemaking, identity management, and boundary management.

Coping approaches to work–life management focus on people’s cognitive, behavioral, and communicative efforts to manage the conflicting demands of work and family. Although most research on coping skills focuses on how individuals manage strain or stress in general, scholars also focus on work–family conflict, particularly situations in which people are experiencing substantial strain, overload, or burnout. An individual’s cognitive appraisal of a situation and perceived skills determine the degree to which the work–life interface is considered stressful and whether they feel competent to manage the situation if needed (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984).

Cognitive appraisal involves assessing the demands and resources of a situation before deciding whether and how to act. Communication competency plays a vital role in work–life coping skills. People may attempt to cope with work–family conflict by communicating the uniqueness of the situation to their supervisor (i.e., providing assurances that the situation will not be repeated); reframing the conflict situation as normal (e.g., pointing out that every working parent must navigate this situation sometimes); or making efforts to reduce their workloads by finding more efficient strategies, offloading work, negotiating more flexible deadlines, or even switching positions (e.g., finding a new company, downshifting). People may choose between different styles of work–family coping—direct action, help seeking, positive thinking, and avoidance resignation (Rotondo, Carlson, & Kincaid, 2003)—strategies that may prove helpful or detrimental.

Sensemaking approaches to work–life management focus on how people make sense of work–life situations. Although scholars often view sensemaking as a theoretical perspective, sensemaking involves a set of skills and tactics that describe the extent to which people are able to frame and act on complex, information-rich, unknown situations effectively (Ancona, 2011). Most of the research on sensemaking as a competency comes from leadership (Ancona, 2011), computer science (Klein, Moon, & Hoffman, 2006), and team or military contexts (Powers, Stech, & Burns, 2010), which highlight sensemaking as a complex competency that requires a diverse set of skills. These skills include an “adaptive mindset:” uncertainty tolerance; a questioning attitude; openness and ability to seek a wide variety of confirming and disconfirming data from multiple perspectives, the ability to understand substantial information quickly; and a focus on plausibility rather than accuracy (Ancona, 2011; Klein et al., 2006). Sensemaking can be improved by specific observable behaviors (i.e., challenging assumptions, suggesting alternatives, displaying self-questioning or doubt, relying on team members, revealing thought processes by talking out loud or written reflection, paying attention to others’ views, openly sharing information and opinions, and telling stories about past events Powers, Stech, & Burns, 2010). Sensemaking can be inhibited by observable behaviors (i.e., pushing for formal discussion, rejecting complex explanations, showing affinity for like-minded thinkers, attacking others’ contributions, pushing for conclusions, or overtly showing frustration).

The three core elements of sensemaking—exploring the wider system, creating a map of the current situation, and acting to change the system to learn more about it—align with the focus of many work–life studies. Communication scholar Annis Golden’s (2009) research on mutual-enactment in work–family environments identified the importance of clarifying assumptions and using informal and formal processes to negotiate and create work–life accommodations that are a good “fit” for the individual and organization. Golden highlights the importance of adapting over time as an individual’s family roles and responsibilities or work roles and responsibilities, or both, change in ways that affect the work–life interface. Organizations and individuals also face new, uncertain, and potentially complex situations that require new ways of thinking and behaving. Organizational communication scholar Patrice Buzzanell and colleagues’ (2005) research on the “good working mother” highlights how people’s sensemaking may be detrimental: Sensemaking that does not consider alternatives, disconfirming evidence, or broader perspectives results in ironic outcomes that actually undermine these mothers’ goals for work–life balance. Sensemaking can also create positive effects: When organizations encourage prosocial sensemaking—namely, encouraging people to view the organization’s behaviors as caring—workers become more productive and more affectively committed, and they experience less work–life conflict balance (Grant, Dutton, & Rosso, 2008).

Identity management approaches recognize that work–life interfaces often require people to manage potentially competing roles or identities. Such roles or identities may compete in terms of demands or values. Research on social identities and impression management suggest that people manage multiple identities in various ways, including correcting or minimizing the more negatively perceived identity, mastering the areas perceived as being the “weaknesses” of particular identities, creating unconventional interpretations of different identities, leveraging one identity to provide resources or other gains for other identities, minimizing the visibility of all but the dominant identity, trying to reconstruct what counts as “normal,” or using humor (Goffman, 1963; Meisenbach, 2010a, 2010b). Scholars have focused substantial attention on the “motherhood penalty,” which arises from competing demands that must be met to fulfill the ideals of the good mother and the good worker, especially when boundaries become integrated or blurred (Budig, Misra, & Boeckmann, 2012; Correll & Benard, 2007). The motherhood penalty refers to the evidence that women who are recognized or perceived as mothers tend to receive fewer promotions, lower pay, and, often, less access to resources (Correll & Benard, 2007). Mothers may respond by segmenting motherhood from work domains (e.g., not talking about children, not displaying family pictures at work, creating schedules that make childcare responsibilities invisible), but such segmentation assumes that people have access to the time, financial, and other resources necessary to segment family and work responsibilities and to ensure that parenting responsibilities do not impinge on workplace time (e.g., breastfeeding, caring for a sick child). Other mothers work to construct an acceptable “working mother” identity that merges the values of the good organizational worker with societal expectations of motherhood (Buzzanell et al., 2005; Meisenbach, 2010b), perhaps by engaging in behaviors and talk that shows they can manage motherhood efficiently (e.g., scheduling an elective caesarean section, a higher risk surgical method for childbirth that prioritizes the workplace and aligns with worker and workplace ideals of efficiency; D’Enbeau & Buzzanell, 2009). Emerging research on fathers suggests that men may work to expand the meanings of masculine work and family identities, designing solutions to solve problems around the “web of responsibilities” (Duckworth & Buzzanell, 2009). In so doing, fathers drawing on identity management, problem-solving, and boundary-negotiation approaches to cope with competing demands. Less work has addressed other identities, even though research on identity management more broadly could provide insights into work–life identity management, particularly when certain identities or related behaviors are stigmatized (e.g., person with AIDS, working reasonable hours to manage family concerns). Stigmatized identities seem to complicate access to the psychological, social, and other resources that allow for work–life resilience, although more research is needed (Meisenbach, 2010b). Work–life resilience describes a person’s ability to recover from or adjust to challenging, disruptive, or destructive circumstances in sustainable ways by drawing on individual qualities of resilience and practicing effective processes of resilience (Buzzanell et al., 2009).

Boundary management approaches to work–life focus on how people manage and cross the boundaries between work and life domains. People vary substantially in the degree to which they prefer to segment or integrate their work–life domains and the degree to which they are able to segment or integrate their work–life (Kreiner et al., 2009). Moreover, people experience less work–life conflict when their preferred boundaries align to a greater degree with the boundaries of the organizations where they work or volunteer. Whether people preferred integrated or segmented work–life, people who enacted more control over their work–life boundaries experienced more positive work and family outcomes (Kossek et al., 2005). Psychological detachment from work helped maintain physical health and engagement when work demands were high (Sonnentag, Binnewies, & Mojza, 2010). Benefits may come from people’s ability to use and enact agency over the mental, physical, and temporal boundaries of their work to establish congruency between the preferred and enacted approach to boundary management—a key factor in work–life outcomes.

To manage and cross boundaries, people use various boundary-management tactics. Behavioral tactics might include prioritizing responsibilities or using boundary keepers or technology to cross or manage boundaries; whereas temporal tactics focus on controlling the time one spends in or thinking about a specific role (e.g., work) and finding respite or rest from roles. Physical tactics may range from building actual walls or fences between areas, creating or reducing the distance between domains, or separating or blending physical artifacts (e.g., keys, mail, supplies) gathered from different domains. Finally, communicative tactics involve setting expectations confronting people who violate boundaries (Kreiner, Hollensbe, & Sheep, 2009). Such boundary work tactics can help people reduce challenges at the work–home interface.

How Do Communication Technologies Influence Work–Life Scholarship?

Technology shapes how people experience and manage work–life domains. Emerging communication technologies challenge the temporal, physical, and psychological boundaries that have conventionally bounded work and nonwork domains since the Industrial Revolution. The Internet and personal computers, followed by mobile phones, tablets, social and new media allow work to be organized differently by blurring or changing the boundaries that formally separated work from the rest of life. Some scholarship suggests that technologies do not necessarily redraw or blur work–life boundaries, but instead subvert work boundaries such that both work and life demands and interactions become fused. This work–life fusion approach suggests that technologies encourage people to manage demands concurrently instead of sequentially by prioritizing either work, family, or another role depending on the particular time, space, or mental state in which they find themselves; however, many people continue to separate different roles, domains, or identities using temporal, technological, physical, psychological, and other boundary-management strategies depending on their own goals as well as social, organizational, and occupational constraints and opportunities (cf. affordances; Golden & Geisler, 2006).

Early commentary highlighted concerns that mobile technologies would blur boundaries between work and the rest of life creating undesired and undesirable “presence bleed” from one domain to another (Gregg, 2011). Scholars expressed concerns that the primacy of work and the ability to work anywhere and anytime would result in greater attention, energy, and focus on work, with concomitant work–life conflict. Technologies like smartphones and social media can lead to work–to-family conflict because of increased work demands, persistent psychological attachment to work, and failure to attend to family responsibilities (Golden, 2013; Haeger & Lingham, 2013). Moreover, social media’s collapsed contexts could also increase family-to-work conflict, especially for those who prefer segmented spheres or who could benefit from prioritizing particular identities (e.g., worker over caregiver). People are finding it more difficult to segment work and life identities as pictures of friends, family, leisure, and workplace commitments become increasingly available to supervisors and human resource staff who screen potential and current employees online (cf. cybervetting) or who request that employees connect with them via various social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, Instagram; Berkelaar, 2016). Such segregation is particularly difficult for people who do gig, temporary, or other forms of contingent work. Mobile technologies make connecting to potential jobs easier but often encourage an always-on mentality given the (perceived) instability of income (Standing, 2016). Yet other scholars have argued that undermining the physical and temporal boundaries that separated paid work life from other parts of life (i.e., the home) provided greater opportunities for women and a new, less-bifurcated way of thinking about work–life balance. For example, “virtual work” (which can be better be described as “distributed work”) could extend opportunities to caretakers and other populations who might otherwise not be able to enter the workforce because of their responsibilities, providing greater equality in terms of access to paid employment (Perrons, 2003).

As of the early 21st century, most scholars assume that the relationship between work–life and communication technology is more complex than early perspectives suggested. Whether technology contributes to or mitigates work–life conflict and work–life enhancement depends on various individual, organizational, social, and technological factors. The same technologies that can create work–life challenges for people can also create opportunities for work–life enhancements. For example, although using communication technologies after “regular” work hours enables people to better fulfill their workplace commitments, it also leads to greater work-to-family conflict, as reported by workers and their significant others. Yet a positive attitude toward communication technology could mitigate some of that work–to-life conflict (Boswell & Olson-Buchanan, 2007). The increased conflict experienced by people who use communication technologies more frequently than other people is likely due to the potential for interruptions of work responsibilities during nonwork times, the potential addition of extra work during nonwork hours, and the potential for greater rumination about work and distraction from nonwork commitments. Intrusions or interruptions from one domain into another can be beneficial if people prefer alternating or integrated boundaries but such intrusions can frustrate individuals who prefer more clearly segmented boundaries. In general, people who reported experiencing the greatest negative spillover from work to family life tended to use communication technologies more and more often outside of normal work hours (Chesley, 2005). However, women who used more communication technologies experienced negative and positive work-to-family spillover, in contrast to men, who received greater negative work-to-family spillover (Chesley, Moen, & Shore, 2003).

Various factors, including agency, attitude, habits, preferences, and abilities, seem to influence whether communication technologies enhance or complicate work–life experiences and practices. People are more likely to use communication technologies outside work hours when they prefer integrating rather than segmenting different life domains (Kossek et al., 2012), when their work identity is a core part of themselves, and when they have a strong affective commitment to the organization (Ashforth et al., 2000). Whether people consider a particular technology (e.g., social media, email) as helpful or detrimental to work–life management affects its perceived utility in helping people achieve work–life balance (Haeger & Lingham, 2013): Teleworkers or telecommuters who were able to establish clear physical boundaries (e.g., a home office) or temporal boundaries between work and other life commitments often perceived lower work-to-family and family-to-work conflict than those without those boundaries—especially when people preferred more segmented domains.

A particular interest of scholars is whether technologies provide individuals with more or less control over work–life issues or help organizations control workers and increase how much time people spend working. Research remains equivocal about whether evolving technologies give individuals or organizations greater control; however, the extent to which technologies provide people with a sense of control seems to be a key factor in whether work–life conflict is likely to be mitigated and work–life enhancement is likely to be fueled by technologies. When people experience greater psychological control, especially over unpredictable circumstances, they can mitigate work–life conflicts to a greater degree (Kossek et al., 2005). “Dual-centric” people, who see the two domains of family and work as having equal priority—that is, they view self as the “whole individual”—tend to be more satisfied at work, regardless of how they use technology (Bourne, Wilson, Lester, & Kickul, 2009). Dual-centrism tends to increase productivity, reduce turnover, and augment individual well-being. Thus, research suggests that the anywhere, anytime opportunities promised by technology could fuel work–family conflict (Boswell & Olson-Buchanan, 2007) or could help people manage it (Golden & Geisler, 2006), depending on who was evaluating the situation or whether people saw their mobile devices as enabling personal agency or operating as a tether.

Going Forward: Future Research

Going forward, future research on the work–life interface will benefit from attending to three broad areas: (a) integrating insights from multiple disciplines and perspectives; (b) using communication technologies to question the work–life binary and tactics, strategies, processes, and experiences of work–life issues; and (c) taking a systems perspective that takes into account relationships between varied and intersecting contextual and individual factors to inform work–life experiences, processes, practices, and outcomes.

To integrate insights across disciplines and perspectives, scholars will need to consider actionable, quotidian ways to encourage interdisciplinary conversation and collaboration in practice, not instead of simply in concept. Reading broadly across disciplines and being more specific in conceptualizing and operationalizing key terms can help this effort. In particular, identifying synonyms for keywords and citations offers a practical way to bridge disciplinary divides as scholars use popular citation network sources (e.g., Google Scholar, Web of Science). Second, evolving information and communication technologies provide an opportunity to question assumptions about how work–life literature and practice are framed at macro- and ideological levels (e.g., what counts as work? what is a good worker? how do work and life relate?). Technology thus provides an opportunity to reconsider and potentially refine and redesign underlying assumptions about work–life interface antecedents, processes, outcomes, and consequences.

Finally, scholars should recognize the theoretical and practical value of multilevel, multimodal, systems-level perspective on the work–life interface. Drawing on complexity theory, networks (cf. social networks), and related theoretical perspectives (e.g., evolutionary and ecological theories, social capital and resource theories) can help scholars better understand the mutually constitutive relationships among factors such as culture, policy, technology, and individual characteristics that lead to the desired outcomes for individuals, organizations, and society. A systems approach takes seriously the growing recognition that theoretically and practically generative work–life research focuses on the “hyphen” (Christensen & Schneider, 2011) in work–life scholarship; that is, a systems approach spotlights how people experience and manage the relationships between different domains of life instead of viewing life as separate spheres, roles, or identities. A systems approach also helps illuminate which stakeholders benefit from different work–life ideals and initiatives. As part of this process, scholars may find it helpful to consider work–life scholarship in the light of contemporary health communication and health scholarship. Increasingly, health scholarship and practice are considering holistic multilevel notions of health and health communication that focus on encouraging individual, organizational, and social well-being, not just on avoiding or treating individual maladies or symptoms. Focusing on work–life research from the perspective of the multimodal, multilevel interrelationships of contemporary society could allow scholars and practitioners to build on and move past compartmentalized approaches to studying and negotiating work and life, drawing on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary perspectives across the lifespan.

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Additional Resources

Boston College Center for Work–Life & Flexibility.

Eurofound. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions.

OCED Better Life Index.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter Award Winners for high-quality work–family research. Available at the Boston College Center for Work & Family website, and at the Center for Families at Purdue University website.

Work and Family Researchers Network.