The leadership and work–life balance literatures are not well-integrated, yet both examine the management of employees. Leadership theory is work-centric in conceptualizing leadership styles and underemphasizes nonwork influences on leaders’ and subordinates’ nonwork outcomes. Work–life studies overlook leadership theory regarding how work–life support reflects but one aspect of what leaders do. Competing narratives coexist over whether work–life support mutually benefits work and nonwork outcomes (a synergistic “dual agenda” view) or if one comes at the expense of the other (a “dueling outcomes” view). Based on our review of 127 studies, we define work–life supportive leadership as a leadership characteristic when leaders (a) prioritize actions to provide active support for employees’ needs and preferences for managing work, family, and personal life roles; and (b) are experienced by subordinates as exhibiting such behaviors. We find clear support for the dual agenda view and observe that work–life supportive leadership is embedded within many leadership styles. Future research can advance each field’s understanding of leader work–life support dynamics. For future research, we direct leadership scholars to focus on work–life supportive leadership’s impact on subordinates’ job performance and nonwork outcomes and work–life scholars to broaden their research focus to encompass leadership and the work domain holistically.
Scholars and organizations face ongoing challenges to update leadership and work–life knowledge regarding the management of the transforming workplace in ways that better align with the changing nature of individuals’ work and nonwork lives. Although the leadership and work–life balance literatures are expanding areas of management scholarship, they remain largely separate from each other even though both fields at their core examine the effective management of employees. This limited integration prevents modernizing leadership and work–life theories to fully reflect contemporary employment experiences and is holding back their scholarly development. Increasing integration may help reinvigorate these fields in new directions as both face ongoing critiques for stymied theoretical development and problems in construct and measurement clarity (for recent leadership and work–life balance reviews, respectively, see Casper, Vaziri, Wayne, DeHauw, & Greenhaus, 2018; Lemoine, Hartnell, & Leroy, 2019). Increased synthesis is critically needed because the recent COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that (a) how leaders organize work impacts employee well-being on and off the job, which matters for organizational effectiveness; and (b) the work and nonwork spheres are inextricably linked as constant connectivity (e.g., smart phones) and blurring work–nonwork boundaries continue to grow. Unfortunately, overall, the leadership and work–life literatures have conceptualized the role, scope, dynamics, and outcomes of leadership—and its impact both on and off the job—in vastly different ways.
Leadership style studies, of which there are thousands, reflect the leadership field’s historical evolution from a focus on “who leaders are” (traits) to emphasizing “what leaders do” (behaviors) (Den Hartog & Koopman, 2001: 168). Leadership style studies have often defined leadership as involving a pattern of behaviors of an individual trying to influence others (Northouse, 2013: 101). As Hersey and Blanchard (1981: 34) elaborated, such behaviors “are perceived by others” and attempt “to influence the activities of people.” Similarly, Davis and Luthans (1979: 239) defined leadership “as a series of behavioral contingency relationships … comprising the behavioral patterns that link leaders and followers to specified goals and task functions” and involving “the effect of supervisor behavior on subordinate task accomplishment.”
A common thread in these definitions is an emphasis (often implicit) on how the behaviors of leaders impact subordinates’ work experiences and effectiveness, such as their work performance (e.g., Dinh, Lord, Garnder, Meuser, Liden, & Hu, 2014; House, 1971; Lord, Day, Zaccaro, Avolio, & Eagly, 2017). Yet leadership studies have frequently neglected the nonwork realm, specifically the influence of leaders on subordinates’ nonwork lives that increasingly spill over into work (and vice versa), as well as the impact of leaders’ nonwork lives on their own leadership approach and effectiveness (e.g., Hammond, Clapp-Smith, & Palanski, 2017). Even the relatively limited leadership research attending to employee well-being has largely centered on how leadership styles influence job-related well-being, rendering personal well-being and outcomes beyond the workplace as ancillary (e.g., Inceoglu, Thomas, Chu, Plans, & Gerbasi, 2018; Montano, Reeske, Franke, & Hüffmeier, 2017). But the above conceptualizations are ambiguous enough to leave the door open to include a greater leadership focus on nonwork activities, tasks, and effectiveness. Yet it is only recently—with growing research efforts to better integrate subordinates (Uhl-Bien, Riggio, Lowe, & Carsten, 2014) and context (Oc, 2018) into leadership studies—that the work–life interface has more frequently emerged.
The work–life literature suffers a similar myopia in focusing on how leaders—often emphasizing direct supervisors—play a critical role in supporting employees’ abilities to balance work and nonwork roles (Kossek, Pichler, Bodner, & Hammer, 2011). The bulk of the research has examined followers’ perceptions of “family supportive supervision,” or perceptions that leaders support and facilitate employees’ management of and balance between work and nonwork roles (Allen, 2001; Thomas & Ganster, 1995; Yu, Pichler, Russo, & Hammer, 2022). One challenge is the term itself, which is a bit of a misnomer. Family supportive supervision includes support not only for employees who must tend to family matters outside of the workplace but also for all employees and their general life experiences outside the workplace, such as the pursuit of leisure, education, community involvement, and time with friends (Casper, Weltman, & Kwesiga, 2007; Keeney, Boyd, Sinha, Westring, & Ryan, 2013; Wilson & Baumann, 2015). An even more pressing challenge is that most work–life studies have ignored leadership theory and the fact that work–life support is just one small aspect of what a leader does when managing employees. As Oreg and Berson (2019) noted, leaders serve many functions, from individual motivation to the formulation of organizational strategy (Nahavandi & Malekzadeh, 1993), which influence organizational change and performance. Instead, the central concept in the work–life literature has been leader behavioral support for nonwork roles, also referred to as family supportive supervisor behaviors (FSSB) (e.g., Hammer, Kossek, Yragui, Bodner, & Hansen, 2009). Rarely connected conceptually to the mainstream leadership literature, FSSB comprise a concept grounded in social support or resource-based theories rather than in seminal leadership perspectives (cf. Crain & Stevens, 2018; Kossek, Odle-Dusseau, & Hammer, 2018a; Kossek Picher, Bodner & Hammer, 2011). Examples of FSSB behaviors (Hammer et al., 2009) include role modeling, emotional support, instrumental support (such as helping individuals access policies or solve scheduling conflicts), and creative support to develop “win–win” solutions that jointly benefit the firm and the employee. An example is when leaders proactively ensure cross-training of employees, which not only ensures greater access to flexible scheduling since workers have a back-up if absent but greater coverage of job tasks for the employer. Lastly, work–life researchers’ frequent focus on work–family outcomes (i.e., work–family conflict and enrichment) as the main dependent variables influenced by leader nonwork support has often rendered important work outcomes (e.g., job performance, promotions, pay, and teamwork) underexamined by comparison.
Integrating the leadership and work–life balance fields is crucial to address important practical and conceptual challenges. Historically, work–life issues have not been a central leadership topic, and cultural and structural barriers persist, impeding improved linkages. For example, some of the most effective and revered leaders are on record as stating “there is no such thing as work–life balance” (attributed to Jack Welch of General Electric; Silverman, 2009) or that work–life balance is “debilitating” (attributed to Jeff Bezos of Amazon; Bernard, 2019). Given this legacy, it is not surprising that scholarly synthesis continues to lag behind practice. This became painfully transparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, where many leaders either reactively adapted (or glaringly ignored) the urgent demand to address turbulent intersecting work and nonwork environments. Some leaders experimented and changed how they organized work more flexibly in ways that offered central consideration to employees’ work–life balance needs (Kossek, Gettings, & Misra, 2021b). Yet closed schools, forced teleworking, and “Zoom fatigue” (Shockley Shockley, Gabriel, Robertson, Rosen, Chawla, Ganster, & Ezerins, 2021)—combined with limited current research to guide best practices—prompted leaders to haphazardly find ways to accommodate disrupted work–nonwork boundaries (Kossek, Dumas, Piszczek, & Allen, 2021a). As the pandemic lingered, staffing shortages surged, and many workers resigned in response to years of overwork as part of the “Great Resignation” (Hirsch, 2021). Although by January 2022, men had returned to the workforce at pre-pandemic levels in most industrialized countries, two million fewer women remained in the labor force, largely due to the need to tend to children’s school and care needs and sometimes to provide elder care (Gonzales, 2022). The dearth of work–life support for frontline workers in essential industries, from health care to manufacturing (which also disproportionately affected women and minorities), further exposed the need for greater leadership attention to nonwork issues (Kossek & Lee, 2020). In fact, work–life balance emerged as the most important issue listed by both employees and managers in one of the first global business consulting surveys on the Great Resignation (De Smet, Dowling, Mugayar-Baldocchi, & Schaninger, 2021).
Another key obstacle holding back integration is a lack of conceptual clarity on what it means to be a “work–life supportive leader” and its performance consequences. It remains unclear whether a leadership focus on supporting employees’ lives outside of work is beneficial or detrimental to employees’ job performance and to the leaders themselves as well. Competing narratives coexist regarding whether work–life support mutually benefits work and nonwork outcomes (a synergistic “dual agenda” view [e.g., Bailyn, 2011; Beauregard & Henry, 2009; ten Brummelhuis & Bakker, 2012]) or if tradeoffs are involved where one comes at the expense of the other (a “dueling outcomes” view; Kossek, Perrigino, & Rock, 2021c; Perrigino, Dunford, & Wilson, 2018). In sum, a comprehensive integrative review is needed to resolve the lack of conceptual clarity and the degree to which work–life supportive leadership enhances or inhibits both nonwork and work outcomes for employees.
The overall objective of this paper is to provide a review of the intersections and gaps between the leadership and work–life balance literatures and offer insights for improved integration. Below we describe our review methodology and analysis that was designed to investigate the current degree of synthesis between the fields and to identify consistencies and gaps in how the literatures viewed work–life support, which we organize into five themes and a framework to guide future research. We suggest that the concept of work–life supportive leadership as a core leadership style provides an integrative bridge to advance these fields.