Barriers to Balance: Factors Linked to Fathers’ Use of Work-Life Initiatives

In Research by Engagement

Father-Friendly Workplaces: The Implementation Gap

tree11More and more employers have adopted family-friendly initiatives, persuaded by the business case for such practices. Local research shows that for every S$1 invested in family-friendly initiatives, an organisation reaped an average return of S$1.28 in terms of increased productivity alone. When the additional benefit of reduced turnover was taken into account, the return on investment rose to S$1.68 for every S$1 invested (MOM, 2005).

Many family-friendly initiatives are gender-neutral in theory, meaning they are equally available to men and women. These include (MOM, 2011):

  1. Flexible work arrangements, including telecommuting, flexible start and end times, compressed work schedules, and job-sharing;
  2. Leave benefits (paid/unpaid), which recognise key milestones like childbirth, exams, dependent care and bereavement; and
  3. Employee support schemes, such as health and wellness programmes, onsite childcare, counselling services, and other informational assistance related to caregiving or parenting.

Yet, the growing availability of such initiatives has not translated to commensurate usage by fathers. Various barriers prevent fathers, or men, from optimising work-life initiatives.

What Explains the Implementation Gap?

Leadership attitudes

Leadership attitudes towards employee use of work-life benefits can be contradictory. 80% of leaders surveyed in a six country study across Brazil, China, India, Germany, the UK, and the US (Linkow et al, 2001) agreed that work-life programmes are important in recruiting and retaining top talent, and boosting employee satisfaction and productivity.

However, many of these same leaders, especially in emerging countries, consider employees with few personal commitments to be the most productive (54% in emerging countries, 25% in developed countries). In particular, many believe that men who are highly committed to their personal/family lives cannot be highly committed to their work (54% in emerging countries, 25% in developed countries).

Organisational culture

There is some evidence that the use of work-life benefits by employees, even when available, may invoke perceptions of lower commitment, and sometimes, real penalties like lower performance evaluations, smaller salary increases, and fewer promotions (Allen & Russell, 1999; Bailyn, 1997; Perlow, 1995, as cited in Beauregard & Henry, 2009).

These barriers appear strongest for men. One study found that men who take family leave were rated as less likely to help their colleagues, work overtime, and be punctual than men who do not take family leave, despite identical job performance ratings. Ratings for female employees did not differ significantly based on their use of family leave (Wayne & Cordeiro, 2003).

Family dynamics and mothers’ views

Research suggests that views held by mothers of a father’s role could also discourage fathers’ from getting more involved.

In the UK, more mothers (34%) than fathers (23%) believe mothers are primarily responsible for looking after children, and fewer mothers (41%) than fathers (55%) say that the parent who is paid more should stay at work – regardless of whether they are male or female (EHRC, 2009b, as cited in Fatherhood Institute, 2011). In Singapore, mothers (44%) are slightly more likely than fathers (39%) to define the father’s role as a “breadwinner” (MCYS, 2009).

Fathers’ attitudes

Fathers’ own anxieties, aspirations, and identifications also play a part. 45% of men surveyed in the UK fail to take two weeks’ paternity leave after the birth of their child with the most common reason being that they cannot afford to. Being marked out as not committed to their jobs (36% of men), or fear of jeopardising promotions (44% of men), are key anxieties that stop men from making a request for flexible working arrangements (EHRC, 2009). Only slightly over 60% of fathers surveyed in the US said they feel comfortable bringing up personal/family issues with their managers (Harrington et al, 2011).

Fathers’ career aspirations are another factor. Even in father-friendly and progressive Norway, as men progress up the managerial career ladder, they are less likely to use the paternity leave to which they are entitled (Brandth & Kvande, 2006).

Fathers may also have unrealistic expectations about “having it all”. Fathers’ are less satisfied than mothers with work-life balance (46% of fathers think they spend “about the right amount of time at work”, compared to 61% of mothers). However, they are nearly three times as likely as mothers to think that work comes first (17% compared to 6%), and more likely than mothers to think that they can meet the needs of both work and care (50% compared to 42% of mothers) (EHRC, 2009).

Fathers’ beliefs about the role of a father also influence how they prioritise family vis-a-vis work. Harrington et al (2011) found that 7 in 10 fathers define their responsibilities to their children as both caring for them and earning money to meet their financial needs. However, the further away fathers are from traditional breadwinning definitions of fatherhood, the greater confidence they have as parents and the more hours they report spending with their children on a typical working day.

Conclusion and Implications

Of course, each of these factors stands not alone but rather, in dynamic inter-relation with one another. One study of fathers and mothers in India found that 40% of parents’ responses about father-family involvement concerned situations where fathers lack bargaining power in an inflexible job context. They thus use their bargaining power granted to them by traditional gender norms and delegate more responsibility to the mother at home (Sriram, 2011).

Given inter-related constraints, tackling the implementation gap between the theory and practice of father-friendly workplaces will require multiple strategies. Key ones relate to creating supportive conditions for all parents at work, stronger communication about the type of practices available, and sensitivity to fathers’ unique concerns and perceptions about such practices.

At the same time, disconnect between fathers’ growing family aspirations and their ability to bring these to reality could partly explain their greater dissatisfaction with work-life balance. This situation poses the question of whether more is also needed to educate and prepare men for the challenges, rewards, and also inevitable trade-offs involved in raising children – “having it all” may be an elusive goal.

Works Cited:
  1. Beauregard, T. & Henry, L. (2009) Making the link between work-life balance practices and organizational performance. Human Resource Management Review, 19, 9-22. Retrieved from
  2. Brandth, B. & Kvande, E. (2006). The Norway report. In M. Moss &O’Brien (Eds.), International review of leave policies and related research. London: Department of Trade & Industry, Employment Relations Research, Series No. 57.
  3. Equality and Human Rights Commission [EHRC] (2009). Working better: Fathers, family and work – contemporary perspectives. Research Summary 41. Retrieved from
  4. Fatherhood Institute (2011). Fatherhood Institute research summary: Fathers, mothers, work and family. Retrieved from
  5. Harrington, B., Van Deusen, F., & Humberd, B. (2011). The new dad: Caring, committed and conflicted. Center for Work and Family, Boston College.
  6. Linkow, P., Civian, J. & Lingle, K. (2001). Men and work-life integration: A global study. WFD Consulting in collaboration with WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress. Retrieved from
  7. Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (2009). Fatherhood Public Perceptions Survey.
  8. Ministry of Manpower (2005). Work-life harmony report: Findings and recommendations for employers on how to use work-life strategies to optimise business performance employment practices. Ministry of Manpower. Retrieved from
  9. Ministry of Manpower (2011). Work life harmony. Employment Practices. Ministry of Manpower. Retrieved from practices/work-life-harmony/Pages/work-life-strategies.aspx.
  10. Rajalakshmi, S. Evidence of change and continuity in fathering: The case of Western India. Marriage & Family Review, 47(8), 625-647.
  11. Wayne, J. H., & Cordeiro, B.L. (2003). Who is a good organizational citizen? Social perception of male and female employees who use family leave. Sex Roles, 49, 233-246.

About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.

First published on 30-04-2012.