Employers and work-life balance

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Work-life balance – Productivity & absenteeism

Employees are the 21st century organisation’s greatest asset – accountants are even adding human capital to the balance sheet.

Poor work-life balance decreases productivity in the following ways:

  • Absenteeism:

    • The CBI believes that absenteeism levels are the main reason why UK productivity lags behind the US and some parts of Europe.

  • Low output:

    • Output per UK worker is nearly half that of US employees and significantly lower than that of Germany and France.

  • Long hours culture:

    • Although there are high numbers of part-time workers in the UK, there are also many people working very long hours. One in three fathers in the UK works over the 48 hours a week limit set by the European Working Time Directive.

Good work-life balance increases productivity because:

  • Individuals have time sovereignty:

    • The degree of control an individual has over their tasks has an impact on their effectiveness at work. This is known as time sovereignty.


Absenteeism costs the UK £11.6bn a year, according to the CBI. Better work-life policies make people healthier and happier and so less likely to take time off work.

Good work-life balance policies take account of the following:

  • Long-term absence:

    • 2.7 million people are on long-term sick leave, costing employers £11bn.

    • Long-term absence accounts for only 20% of reported cases but takes up more than 40% of total working time lost

    • Employers tend to focus on policies that reduce short-term absence.

  • The causes of stress:

    • The incidence of stress has been shown to increase with work intensification. Research commissioned by the Health & Safety Executive has indicated that:

      • About half a million people in the UK experience work-related stress at a level they believe is making them ill,

      • Up to 5 million people feel ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ stressed by their work, and

      • Work-related stress costs society about £3.7bn every year (at 1995-6 prices).

    • Whilst risk assessments on physical health and safety are frequently carried out, fewer employers have strategies for dealing with the psychological aspects of stress. These can be equally damaging to organisational objectives.
  • The needs of different groups

    • Eldercarers: workers who look after elderly relatives can experience work interruptions and may sometimes have to miss work. They can incur a financial loss if they take unpaid time off, and may miss meetings and lose out in terms of training and promotion opportunities.

    • Parents: although parents are now entitled to emergency leave, they often feel torn between home and work responsibilities whenever their child is ill or suffering other difficulties, or when their childcare arrangements fail.

    • Younger workers: this group values work-life balance, with 52 per cent of undergraduates hoping to achieve a good work-life balance within three years after graduation (Universum Graduate Survey 2001). According to the DTI (2002), twice as many employees would rather work shorter hours than win the lottery.

    • Older workers: among employed people in their late 50s and early 60s, 78% said they would like to work part-time in retirement (NOP survey for Help the Aged 2002).

Where to next?
Making a case
Core elements
The right policies


© Work-Life balance part of The Work Foundation 2005