Striving for balance: Examining the work-family interface in Africa

Posted on September 15, 2015

With employers demanding more and more of their employees’ time in order to increase their  bottom-line, and most workers being tethered to the workplace practically 24/7 through their mobile devices, getting the work-family balance just right might seem somewhat illusive to most of us. Getting this balance right is, however, not only vital for better labour-market outcomes, but it can also greatly enhance the wellbeing of workers and their families and lead to overall positive human development.

Work-family balance is defined as the ability of wage workers to effectively reconcile the demands of paid work with their family responsibilities. Research has shown that the domains of work and family can affect one another interchangeably – in other words, the strain from participation in one domain – either work or family – can affect the individual’s performance in the other. Maintaining a balance between the two domains therefore plays an integral role in enhancing individual and societal capabilities as part of a broader conceptualisation of human development. The United Nations (UN) describes human development as the process of increasing people’s available choices by allowing them to lead long and healthy lives and to have access to better educational and economic opportunities, as well as to resources and social services needed to maintain a decent standard of living. It is largely because of this that there has been increasing calls by the global policymaking, socio-economic and human-development community, for work-family balance to be a central element in the development agenda of countries across the globe.

Unfortunately, because the majority of current research and literature on the subject of work-family balance have a decidedly Western focus – with a handful of studies done in East Asian and Latin American countries – research on the subject in an African context is largely lacking at this stage. With the massive socio-economic and demographic transformations that are currently taking place all over the African continent, however, it is imperative that attention is given to aspects of work-family balance that can be applied specifically to African workers.

This has prompted a group of researchers and other role-players from various institutions, including the University of Pretoria (UP), to establish a research network in order to bring together African, as well as other international scholars with expertise and research and policy interests on the broad issue of the work-family interface in Africa. The aim of the network is not to compete with existing international networks, such as the US-based Work and Family Researchers Network (WFRN) and the European-based International Network on Parental Leave Policy and Research (INPLPR), but rather to ensure that African experiences and perspectives on the subject are addressed, both on the continent and globally.

On Friday, 4 September 2015, the inaugural workshop of the African Research Network on Work-Family Interface was held at the University of Pretoria (UP). The workshop – which was funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF)’s Centre of Excellence on Human Development – was attended by researchers from as far afield as Australia, Kenya, Nigeria and the UK, as well as representatives from the South African Government and various industry bodies. The main objective of this inaugural workshop was to bring together researchers and policy makers in order to share information on existing research and to generate ideas for future collaborative work. The day was marked by various lively discussion sessions, where data needs were identified, expertise and funding opportunities were discussed and opportunities for links between the Network and other relevant initiatives were examined.

Prof Zitha Mokomane, from the Department of Sociology in UP’s Faculty of Humanities, who was also one of the organisers of the event, says that the establishment of the Network is a dream come true for her, as the subject matter that they will be investigating is something that she is very passionate about. Prof Mokomane’s passion for the challenges faced by African workers at the work-life interface is evident in the way she talks about the research she has already undertaken on the subject. In 2014 she published her research exploring the effect of paid work on family life in the South African context in a book titled Work-family interface in Sub-Saharan Africa: Challenges and responses. As a working mother herself, Prof Mokomane is intimately familiar with the challenges of balancing work and family and she is confident that through the concerted efforts of the newly established research network, sensible solutions to the unique problems faced by workers on the African continent can be found. She hopes to build on the research that she has undertaken to date in order to contribute to sensible policies on the matter of work-family balance.

Prof Marian Baird, a professor of Employment Relations and Director of the Women Work Research Group at the University of Sydney’s Business School, Australia, will also be collaborating with researchers in the newly established Network. She says that academics have great potential to influence policy through their research, and she thinks that a network such as the African Research Network on Work-Family Interface can be a very powerful tool to inform governments and thereby empower them to institute policies that will be to the benefit of both industry and the citizens of their countries.

Other institutions that were represented at the inaugural workshop and who will in future form part of the African Research Network on Work-Family Interface include: the University of Cape Town; King’s College, London, UK; Rhodes University; the Pan-Atlantic University of Lagos, Nigeria; Strathmore Business School, Nairobi, Kenya; the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits); the University of South Africa (Unisa); the Institute for Work Family Integration, Lagos, Nigeria; the Department of Social Development, South Africa; the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN); the Department of Public Service and Administration, South Africa; and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Country Office for South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland.


- Author Ansa Heyl

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