The work-family nexus and small to medium sized enterprises: implications for worker well-being

Michael P. O’Driscoll, Paula Brough and Jarrod Haar


As illustrated in other chapters in this volume, small and medium sized businesses represent the majority of companies and organizations globally, although unfortunately there is no unitary, consistent definition of the concept ‘small to medium sized enterprise’. Several different criteria have been utilized to categorize organizations as SMEs, and the criteria also vary somewhat across countries. Nevertheless, it is important to qualify the nature of SMEs and to adopt an operational definition. For the purpose of this chapter, we have followed the OECD and European Union (2009) definitions, which are outlined here. The European Union (2009) defined businesses with less than ten staff as micro enterprises, while those with fewer than 50 employees are small enterprises, and under 250 employees as medium sized enterprises. Similarly, the OECD (2005) puts the upper limit designating an SME at 250 employees, noting that some countries set the limit at 200 employees, while in the United States organizations with less than 500 employees are considered SMEs. The OECD (2000) reported that 99.8 per cent of all enterprises in European Union countries were SMEs (under 250 employees), while the figure is 99 per cent in the United States (under 500 employees), and 99 per cent in Japan (under 300 employees).

Small to medium sized enterprises are universal, with countries of varying sizes having quite similar proportions of smaller sized businesses. For example, New Zealand, with a population of just over 4 million people, has been found to have a similar proportion of SMEs as Germany with 82 million and the United States with 307 million. Mills and Timmins (2004) noted that ‘once zero-employee and one-year firms have been removed, the proportion of small firms in the New Zealand population is broadly within the OECD range’ (p. 9). They go on to state: ‘New Zealand seems to have a slightly lower proportion of small organizations than the USA and the UK (where small is defined as fewer than 20 employees): 96.8% of New Zealand firms have fewer than 20 employees, as compared with 97.2% for the USA and 97.6% for the UK’ (p.15).

The purpose of the present chapter is to reflect upon the significance of work-life balance issues for people who work in SMEs, whether as owners, managers or employees, and to discuss some possible interventions that might be implemented to reduce conflict between work and life outside the job, and to enhance their work-life balance. As with larger organizations, the introduction of work-life balance policies or practices is not without difficulty in SMEs, but there is growing evidence that increasing work-life balance for workers has substantial benefits not just for individual workers and their families, but also for the organization as a whole. Nevertheless, attending effectively to this issue can be a significant challenge for SMEs in particular, especially as they have fewer employees and hence typically have less capability to rotate people through different roles that are essential for the business to function and flourish. In addition, again due to their smaller size, the absence of employees (for whatever reason) can have a greater impact on the day-to-day functioning of SMEs.

The notion of work-life balance has received considerable attention in the organizational literature in recent years, and has been closely linked with occupational health and well-being. Until relatively recently, the majority of research on the work-family nexus tended to focus on conflict or interference between work and family roles, although over the past ten years or so attention has also been given to enrichment or facilitation of work and family domains. The definition and conceptualization of work-life ‘balance’, however, has been marked by controversy and different perspectives. While some investigators have defined balance in terms of the amount of time (or energy) invested in work and other (typically family) roles (Greenhaus et al., 2003), others have viewed it in relation to role enactment and the ability to satisfactorily perform roles in both domains (Carlson et al., 2009). A third conceptualization is that balance is simply the individual’s perception that the various components of his or her life are in a state of equilibrium, and that he/she is satisfied with the time and energy expended in each domain (see Guest, 2002). Each of these viewpoints has merit and draws attention to potentially important aspects of work-life balance. In practice, most researchers have adopted an approach which amalgamates various aspects of these (somewhat different, albeit complementary) conceptualizations. For the present chapter, of greater importance are the established linkages between work-life balance and individuals’ psychosocial health and well-being. Irrespective of which definition of work-life balance is adopted, there is consensus that this is an important issue for both individuals and organizations, and that lack of balance can have a detrimental impact not only on individuals’ well-being, but also on organizational productivity. We begin by discussing some of the factors which contribute to work-life balance and some of the major outcomes of imbalance between work and other (especially family) roles.

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