Study Examines 7 Theories that Help Us Better Understand Work-Life Balance

January 25, 2021by Noah Shaw0

Summary of:

Bello, Z., & Tanko, G.I. (2020). Review of work-life balance theories. GATR Global Journal of Business and Social Science Review 8(4), 217-227.

Free Consultation for Team Training

Background & Theory:

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many employees have transitioned to working from home. While working from home certainly has its benefits, work-life balance has become an issue for many employees. Increased research on work-life balance over the years has led organizations to ensuring employees receive a healthy balance of work time and personal time, ultimately leading to greater productivity. With an increase in research, however, comes an increase in how we can think of work-life balance. This literature review evaluates the current theories of work-life balance to better understand how work life and personal life affect each other, the individual, and the workplace.


Research was conducted by Zainab Bello, and Garba Ibrahim Tanko to answer the following question:

    1. What theories currently exist that explain work-life balance?


The authors consolidated research studies about work-life balance from online databases like APA PsycNet, ResearchGate, Google scholar, JSTOR, SAGE, and ScienceDirect. The authors reviewed each of the 18 theories found and summarized each briefly. Read the full study for comprehensive summaries of each of these theories.


Out of the 18 theories discovered, the authors pinpointed a few of importance. They referenced a study suggesting that boundary theory and border theory may be the basis for all other theories of work-life balance. Additionally, they assessed that current literature uses five core theories to explain the link between work and personal life. These theories include segmentation theory, spill-over theory, compensation theory, instrumental theory, and inter-role conflict theory. Listed below are quick summaries of these five theories plus boundary theory and border theory:

  • Border Theory: This theory insinuates that people live out of different domains (i.e. a work domain and a family domain). Borders exist between these domains and based on the permeability and flexibility of that domain. People are able to cross borders successfully based upon their level of influence (autonomy) and level of domain identification. Border theory has, for the most part, been confined to exploring the work and family domains.
  • Boundary Theory: This is a cognitive social grouping theory that focuses on the roles that people assume through labels of social categories, two of which are work and home. People have the ability cross these boundaries, therefore exiting one role (i.e. work) and entering a new role (i.e. home). Unlike border theory, boundary theory encompasses more social categories than just work and home.
  • Segmentation Theory: Argued as one of the earliest theories on work-life balance, this theory asserts that work life and family life are inherently segmented and independent from each other. Due to this independence, work life and family life do not affect each other, allowing people to draw lines between the two categories and skillfully organize their life. Some studies have argued against this theory, claiming work and family life are more closely related.
  • Spill-Over Theory: This theory focuses on the relatedness between work life and family life, suggesting that they both affect each other. In this way, both positive and negative experiences/abilities of work can carry over into positive or negative experiences/abilities at home, and vice versa.
  • Compensation Theory: This theory proposes that people try to make up for deficiencies in one field by compensating for them in the other. For example, an employee having a tough time at work may look for positive experiences at home to compensate for their negative work experiences.
  • Instrumental Theory: This theory suggests that people choose to act in a way in one field to affect the other field. For example, an employee may choose to work harder in their job in order to get paid more so they can afford a personal vacation.
  • Inter-role Conflict Theory: This theory focuses on the challenges that can often arise from competing interests of different fields. It suggests that these competing interests create role conflict for the individual, affecting the individual in both fields. For example, a late meeting at work may clash times with a family dinner, thereby creating role conflict between work life and family life.

What We Can Learn:

Looking over this research, we can take away the following key insights:

  • In reviewing all of these different theories of work-life balance, we can come to the conclusion that (1) work-life balance is complicated and (2) these theories all contain truthful elements. Just because people may want to work more to benefit their personal life (instrumental theory) does not mean that inter-role conflict cannot occur (inter-role conflict theory). In fact, the opposite is more likely true—that these theories can affect each other in the complex arena of work-life balance.
  • Organizational leadership should consider the impact some of these theories can have on the health and welfare of both the employee and organization. Work-life balance can lead to great outcomes when handled well, and not-so-great outcomes when handled poorly.

Final Takeaways

For Consultants: Consultants should remain open to how work-life balance may affect employees in the workplace. For example, an employee who reacts negatively to things at work may be acting in conjunction with the spill-over theory, carrying over personal negative experiences to work.

For Everyone: Read over each of these theories and consider how your work-life balance may be affecting you. If you still need help, Pollack Peacebuilding Services offers coaching services to help individuals in organizations deal with difficult work situations like workplace conflict.

Noah Shaw

Noah is the Peace Operations Coordinator at Pollack Peacebuilding Systems and holds a Master's in Dispute Resolution from the Pepperdine University Caruso School of Law.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Visit us on social networks:

Visit us on social networks:

Copyright © 2021 Pollack Peacebuilding Systems