How does work-life balance change how ‘good’ your job is?

Work-life balance is one of the seven dimensions of job quality covered in the CIPD’s UK Working Lives survey. Initial findings from the survey reveal two interesting findings. One is that work-life balance seems to be regarded as less important by working people than other dimensions such as having good pay and benefits or an interesting job. The other being that, unlike love and marriage or a horse and carriage, it does not go together with other dimensions of job quality. Indeed, “good” jobs on other dimensions, such as pay, could be “bad” jobs in terms of work-life balance. And similarly, those working in low-paid jobs often seemed to have a better work-life balance than those in more senior, better-paid positions.

Both findings need some unpicking. Our survey suggests that how a job affects an individual’s work-life balance doesn’t greatly affect what an individual thinks about that job, whether they’re looking to leave it etc. This does seem consistent with research carried out here and in other countries, but if it applies, it only does so on average. While most people may be content to go with the flow, such as 9-to-5 hours, some people at some points in their life regard work-life balance factors (such as convenient hours or the ability to concentrate on other things rather than work) as much more important. That’s why many work part-time hours. And gaining greater control over when and where they work is one of the main reasons why people opt to work for themselves. Employers looking to recruit or retain labour in a tight, post-Brexit labour market may find they’re missing a trick if they only offer jobs on a “traditional” basis. Yes, many people may be content to go along with this, but what about those unable or unwilling to go along with the way things “have always been done round here”?

Our survey also suggests that those in some of the “best” jobs have the “worst” work-life balance, such as senior managers and professionals. They work more hours than they’d like to and are most likely to find work clashing with other aspects of their lives. To an extent, this is a problem for those workers themselves, as they tend to be the people with most control over their work (such as how they do it or when they do it). But employers can still affect how these expensive (and presumably valuable) people behave. Do systems of performance appraisal and recruitment support work-life balance? For example, an ethos that “professionals don’t clock-watch” is a recipe for unpaid overtime, discontent and burn-out unless it is challenged and replaced by something more suited to the modern world.

Flexible working arrangements can help employees manage their work-life balance. The most commonly used arrangements in our survey were flexitime – especially common in the public sector and in large firms – and working from home, something that technology has made easier for many employers to roll-out in recent years. However, making these arrangements available doesn’t mean “job done”. There might be more subtle barriers to their take-up, such as scepticism about how people can be supervised if they’re not physically there. Training to improve the competence and confidence of managers may be needed.

Most employees now have a statutory right to request flexible working. Our survey didn’t collect details on whether employees had used this legislation. Other evidence is contradictory: some employers seem to like using the right to request as their channel for managing flexible working; other employers seem to prefer to do things informally. But with the legislation due to be reviewed in 2019, this is one aspect of people management likely to stay in the limelight.

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