Working 9 to 5… 6, 7, 8… is not the way to make a living

An article a few days ago on potential strike action was focused around whether work-life balance promises were being compromised. The article made me stop and think about how much the term ‘work-life balance’ has grown in complexity over recent years. The term is ingrained in our lexicon and as a concept gets much attention in the well-being and sustainability debate. But given the vast changes in how, when and where we work, how much has our understanding or consideration of work-life balance in practice, and the factors that affect it, kept up?

What is work/life balance?

A blog in People Management magazine explains the term work-life balance was first used in the U.S. in the 1980s in response to the number of people working long hours at the expense of their family life. At a fundamental level, some commentators question the extent to which we can or even should separate out work and life. There are views that work is part of your overall life so perhaps the term should really be work/leisure balance. In terms of current relevance, others commentators discuss how advances in mobile technology mean the lines between the two are blurred. The phrase ‘always switched on’ is a familiar phrase, and this summer I’ve noticed more articles discussing a ‘digital detox’. And of course there’s some employers cited in the news for switching off servers at weekends.  

For me the simple explanation of work-life balance as the balance between discrete work and leisure time is too bland and not helpful. With globalisation, technology advancements and many people not working from a central office location, it’s not just about how much time we spend at work, there’s also the consideration of when and where work needs to be done.

Of course, the word ‘balance’ means different things to different people. It depends on an individual’s choices about their lifestyle – a balance which is likely to change in nature during the course of working life. And people will desire this balance for a much broader set of reasons than was articulated perhaps even 10-15 years ago. How much are these kinds of conversations are happening between employer and employee? What are each’s expectations around work/life balance, if any, and how are they shaping the psychological contract?

What are UK employees saying about their current work/life balance?

The CIPD’s twice-yearly Employee Outlook survey, produced in partnership with Halogen, tracks employees’ views about their working life. In response to the statement ‘I achieve the right balance between my work and home life’, 60% of the 2,029 employees surveyed in spring 2016 agreed with the statement and 23% disagreed. The overall net figure of +37 (the proportion of people agreeing with a statement minus those disagreeing) has remained stable over the last few surveys, but with almost a quarter of people dissatisfied with their work/life balance, it’s clear the conversations need to continue.

We also know that presenteeism (coming to work when ill) is an issue for a third of organisations, according to the 2015 CIPD Absence Management survey results, produced in partnership with Simplyhealth. Just over half (56%) of employers who said they have seen an increase in presenteeism over the last 12 months, also said they haven’t taken steps to discourage it. A further question that would be interesting to ask is whether those employers who are dissuading presenteeism are mindful of digital presenteeism? What I mean here is: ‘I’m ill, so I’ll work from home’ which seems to be becoming quite commonplace now the technology to work from anywhere is widespread. There’s also the line, ‘I’m on holiday tomorrow but I’ll have my work phone with me as I’ve got some things to catch up on’ – relating to the concept of leaveism. Are phrases like this being discussed between line manager and employee to see if these practices are really the most appropriate? Without action there’s the risk these ways of working will become an informal norm and part of the organisation’s culture.

How to make work/life balance a reality in your organisation

Essentially, what makes a good work-life balance is in the eye of the beholder, and what works for one person will be different from another, dependent on our lifestyle choices, personal expectations, and so on. What’s common across everyone is the need for clear expectations to be set, and the option to have conversations at work about issues such as unrealistic workloads; we need to be able to explore options without concern that our dedication or competence will be questioned or career aspirations affected.

An article in the Harvard Business Review from June 2016 looks at managing the high intensity workplace and offers practical ways managers can enable employees to be high performers without needing to be permanently available. Their suggestions include encouraging people to develop a multi-faceted identity, for example, acknowledging the value that people’s activities outside of work add to their work. And rewarding work quality and outcomes rather than the amount of time put in, as well as instituting regular leave and reasonable work hours. It’s an interesting piece about how to go about changing behaviours and ways of operating that may have become commonplace.

There’s a lot written about why work/life balance is important for both individuals and organisations; much of the research relates to the wider well-being and performance link. In recent years, the term work-life balance is used interchangeably with, and has perhaps been overtaken by, the concept of flexible working. To me, flexible working is a tool or way of working that can help better achieve a more desirable balance of our work and leisure time. For example, the option to work from home can save 3.5 hours’ commuting time in my day, giving me more energy, and I use that time to focus on significant pieces of work. A friend moved their working day forward to fit with their international responsibilities at work – for the organisation this means they’re able to join calls on other time zones more readily, and for them personally they’re able to better balance their responsibilities outside of work. However when flexible working initiatives and work/life balance are not in support of each other (for example investing in technology so staff can work outside their working hours), mutual benefits aren’t going to be realised.

How can we think differently about work/life balance?

Whatever your views on the term itself, to promote a sustainable way of working, action is needed. Two particular recent CIPD papers are useful to prompt thinking about how we can develop workplaces that put employee well-being at their core and help make decisions to balance different stakeholder needs.  

Firstly, our 2016 policy report presents a model of well-being, in which work/life balance is called out within the element of ‘work demands’. This report asserts that having a genuinely-lived approach to employee well-being rests on the three workplace fundamentals of culture, leadership and people management, highlighting their central role in growing an organisation’s health and well-being agenda.

Secondly, the CIPD Profession for the Future work sets out to define how HR can best meet its full potential to champion better work and working lives, for the benefit of multiple stakeholders, including individuals, organisations, societies and economies. Given the changing nature of work, it’s becoming clear that the traditional ‘best practice’ approach to guide HR is not always relevant or useful in all organisation contexts. We are likely to encounter issues for which there may be no obvious solutions, rules or precedents to dictate what we should do in every context. Promoting and supporting work/life balance appears to be one of these such issues.

The CIPD instead advocates the need for broad principles about what HR professionals stand for, rather than focusing on HR activities. Having principles-based standards would help HR professionals make good decisions in a way that considers the needs of different stakeholders. Having principles incorporates ethics-based reasoning into decision-making, on top of legal requirements and norms.

To help inform what principles for the HR profession might look like, we first explored existing research into ethical issues at work. We identified a number of ‘lenses’ or perspectives people may consider when making ethical choices. Our research into ethical decision-making offers useful insight into the principles and lenses we may want to consider in making business decisions, with the aim of creating as much of a win-win situation for those affected by the decision as possible. These lenses, or perspectives, may be helpful to consider when making business decisions concerning the way the organisation operates.

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  • Great posting challenging the term work-life balance. I like to refer to it as lifestyle. Or provocatively life-work balance. Having said that I am not a fan of the word balance in this context because sometimes when you are balancing things can come crashing down...

  • Hi - thanks for this.  What about the other meaning of work-life balance - people who are unsatisfied because they don't have enough work (would prefer/need a full-time job) or are on successive short-term contracts? I feel this is a part of the discussion that is missing but should also come under the heading of work-life balance.  

  • Two things spring to mind on reading this.  Often, it seems to me, that we use hours input to asses productivity and contribution. We reward the wrong things.  As a student I knew that once I had completed an assignment my time was my own.  I didn't think "oh I must spend 8 hours on this".  If I got a good mark then I'd be happy.  A poor mark and I needed to review my approach including how much time I spent on the assignment.  25 years on  if I finish the piece of work I'm doing today before 5:30pm I won't be hitting the gym.  No, I'll be expected to start another piece even if I'm exhausted and not functioning at my best.  If that piece of work then happens to take me until 6:30pm that's my loss - no lie in in the morning!  Which brings me to my second point, trust.  I'm 47 years of age, a mum, wife and homemaker.  I help out with activities at church and my son's Scout troop. In none of these arenas does anyone question the time I spend on each activity they just want me to do what I committed to doing and do it well.  I'm there when I need to be for as long as I need to be. At work, even though I'm in a senior advisory position my boss and my boss's boss need to see me "working" for eight hours a day!  What's that about?  Surely what I produce is what's important? Yes, sure, they want their money's worth but if the relationship is based on trust then they ask and I deliver and hours don't come in to it.  Personally I have a reasonably good "work-life balance" but it takes some working at, requires a 'thick skin' at times and I know it could be better if I was able to consider life as a whole and work all my weekly activities around one another to achieve the best use of time and resources - mine and my employer's.

  • Hi Jill, interesting piece thanks. One question, does technology mean that 'balance' will become redundant and we will all be focussing on work-life 'integration'?

    Interesting thoughts from Jane as well. But doesn't it assume a privileged position to say we all love work and want to serve? I get your point about our relationship to work rather than the work itself though. Adrian Wakeling

  • Ooops I meant to post this as me, and not anonynously! so Reposting. Great much needed conversation for us to explore. Work-life balance I feel puts a false separation between work and life when work is life - and in essence our body loves working, we love people and we love serving others, its just that there are factors in our modern day workplaces we dont love, like complicated processes, not making people and working relationships the foundation of workplaces, and other cultural and behavioural things including not dealing with bullying or other imposing behaviours around us.  In the end it is not work, but our relationship with work that we can review.  Fundamentally it all starts with us and our relationship with ourselves. If we take super care of our own wellbeing - care for ourselves to the bone with even the simplest of daily activities like peeing on time, hydration, posture, nourishing food, and so on we are more open to work, and more solidly able to deal with the day whatever the day brings. When we dont have a solid foundation of self care and self nurturance - when we are tired, or depleted, exhausted, or 'stressed' then we look for things like 'work life balance' to try and 'manage' the situation rather than making changes to the way we live life that then dont need 'managing' because we are steady. I feel there is much we could explore about 'work'life balance, and that it is nowadays an outmoded term for something that is simply our relationship with work, and our relationship with ourselves.