Employers and work-life balance

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Employers and Work-life Balance

Will Hutton, Chief Executive, The Work Foundation

Work has always been part of life. For many of us, it is the primary way in which we interact with others in society. But new technologies, growing competition and the intensification of customer demand means that for more and more workers, life has become work – and whilst some are thriving, others are increasingly unhappy. This is why The Work Foundation is concerned to raise the quality of the public debate about work life balance and this is why we are delighted to be able to take on the challenge of developing the Employers for Work-Life Balance (EfWLB) website.

Most workers are feeling a time squeeze. Research that The Work Foundation commissioned in May 2003 for the re-launch of the site, in association with Employers for Work-Life Balance, found that nearly three-quarters of full-time workers want to spend more time with their families and over a third of full-time and part-time workers are so exhausted that when they get home, all they can do is fall asleep on the sofa in the evenings.

Women in particular are affected. Despite the mass influx of women into paid employment, they continue to bear the brunt of domestic labour, doing a double shift of paid and unpaid work. British workers are becoming increasingly dissatisfied, with working hours and workload top of the list of complaints. And despite isolated good practice and the benefits of effective work-life balance – reduced absenteeism, less staff turnover and a productive, committed workforce – most organisations are not responding to these ongoing issues.

This is partly because many organisations have found it difficult to reconcile flexible working with the embedded culture of nine to five presenteeism. Indeed Britain works the longest hours in Europe – and yet it lags behind in the productivity tables; the way of working we cling to isn’t delivering the goods and yet we won’t let it go. It is also partly because work-life balance is still not seen as relevant to everyone: over a third of respondents to our survey thought it was mainly for parents. Many still see work-life balance as a women’s issue. These are preconceptions that The Work Foundation is keen to challenge.

Things are starting to change, albeit slowly. Men, key in changing workplace cultures, are coming under increasing pressure from partners to participate more in housework and childcare, and many want to: demand from them for more work-life balance is starting to grow.

The meaning of work-life balance is also broadening: our research suggests that control over working time – time sovereignty – is just as important as the number of hours worked. Workers who have more say over their working time feel less stressed and are more satisfied with and committed to their work. That’s a concept that is relevant to everyone, including over two-fifths of full-time workers who thought they would be more productive at work if they were given more control over their time.

This is not a flash in the pan issue. Demographic trends suggest that work-life balance is not going to go away. More and more women are entering the labour market, we have an ageing population and people are starting to demand that their employers enable them to have a better work-life balance. The Work Foundation looks forward to shaping future debates about how this better work-life balance will happen, progressing understanding of work-life balance as a concept relevant to all and helping to create sustainable, productive organisations.


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