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Colborn’s Corner: The truth about work/life balance

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Quentin Colborn
This week Quentin Colborn puts the work/life balance argument in the spotlight and debates the case for whether the government may indeed have had the last laugh.



Few weeks go by without either a comment from the mainstream or HR press about work/life balance. The accepted wisdom is that there needs to be a good relationship between work and home life – after all it’s just like motherhood and apple pie. Who would ever vote against them?

I’m not decrying work/life balance as a concept, but I think we need to do a little digging beneath the surface to see what it all means and why we place such importance upon it.

Firstly let’s take a very cynical view. Could it be that the concept of work/life balance is simply a government initiative to ensure that unemployment remains low?

By guaranteeing a reduction in the working hours of the great British public it follows that more jobs will be created resulting in the two-pronged benefit for those who secure a job off the back of it and the Chancellor who reduces Jobseeker’s Allowance payments whilst swelling the tax takings from a greater pool of salaries.

I’m not saying this is the case, but it certainly beats restrictions on working hours that have been tried and failed in France.

There is also much discussion about the balance with the almost inbuilt assumption that long working hours are a new phenomenon. However, going back in history we see that long hours used to be the norm and it was only really the concept of leisure during the 20th century that really brought about a change in attitudes.

In the 18th and 19th centuries it wasn’t unusual to work six days out of seven while notching up 70 hours over the working week. Sometimes we forget to look backwards to see how far we have come.

The other interesting consideration is the notion of stress. Do we really understand it? I heard a comment on the radio recently which suggested that the stress levels we endure today are nothing compared to those suffered by our ancestors.

When you compare yourself with a woman living in 1940’s Britain, the picture becomes clearer. She would have struggled with bringing up three children while working a full time jobs in a munitions factory not to mention the worry of her husband who may have been at war and not been heard of for some time.

So why do we struggle with work/life balance issues today? Is it that work demands have become greater or have we a greater desire to have control over our ‘free’ time? I suspect that part of it is because our priorities have changed. The range of consumer goods available has increased threefold since those enjoyed by previous generations and I wonder how much of the long working hours culture is driven by our desire to ‘do well’ in material terms.

I appreciate that not all long hours are driven by individuals and much is demanded by employers, but if we were prepared to put our money where our mouths are and say ‘no’ to a promotion or the prospect of a bonus, would this help on an individual basis?

Is it socially acceptable to say you are content with your present job? In many situations the answer is ‘no’, but in reality I think many organisations would value a ‘steady Eddie’ who is content to do their job satisfactorily and where we meet these people we should value them and recognise them as having made a rational choice that works for them.

So let’s recognise that work/life balance may be a real issue, but one that needs realistic solutions. Simply saying employers need to cut hours sounds easy and attractive but is often not economically realistic.

Perhaps on an individual level we should be saying it’s okay not to have a second car, we don’t have to take out that Sky subscription because balance is in our own hands and we can all take decisions that suit us best – but we can’t have our cake and eat it!

To what extent do you believe that creating an improved work/life balance is in the hands of the individual? Are long hours the results of rampant consumerism? If we reduced our material expectations might we have a better quality of life? I’d like to hear your views, post your comments in the box below.

Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant who supports organisations with a wide range of HR activities. For an informal discussion of how he can help you T: 01376 571360 or e-mail him at [email protected]

Colborn’s Corner: series articles


4 Responses

  1. Not just about working parents
    I’m in agreement with Andy. The flexible working legislation is a step in the right direction but organisations need to be more creative in how they employ staff. Work-life balance does not just apply to working parents – everyone should be able to seek ways of balancing outside interests with work commitments. Considering more flexible ways to perform work in terms of both times and locations also encourages regular realistic practical job reviews. By focusing on job outputs managers can explore flexibilities that can be agreed with employees which will allow them to maintain a healthy work-life balance (and, crucially, keep motivation levels high).

  2. Not only about cutting hours
    Interesting view…but I’m not sure why Quentin thinks WLB is primarily about cutting hours.

    There are a range of work options that include more flexibility in daily hours, compressed working week, regular or occasional home-based working, etc. Workplace staff consultations we have carried out show that cutting working hours has least appeal. Partly this is because most people who want to work part-time do so already.

    Interestingly, many who express an unfulfilled desire to reduce hours are not young mothers, but over-45s – both female and male.

    This is relevant as we face the challenges of an ageing society, and look for ways to develop phased retirement options. The priorities of older workers are certainly changing, and include more balance pre-retirement and the option to work flexibly after state pension age.

    Actually, I think the rather odd limitation of the right to request flexible work to parents of young children in the Employment Act was designed as a kind of Trojan horse. Once introduced with this less contentious group, company policies become inequitable if the same rights are not available to all staff. And why not?

    Andy Lake
    Editor, Flexibility.co.uk

  3. work life balance
    I think you both might be on to something here. Women in the 80’s ‘wanted it all’, kids, marriage, career, a nice home. Recently that has retreated, many women now prefer to stay at home to raise the children, however the economic reality is that 2 salaries are required to maintain a lifestyle. This has added one more to the list ‘personal fulfillment’ There are loads of women with small children running small companies from home (some of them very big concerns ie the founder of tommee tippee drinking cups invented the system in her kitchen and is now v rich) these women are proving what can be done when there is a need to keep all the balls in the air at the same time. They have made their own reality and are making it work because that way they can have it all.

    The reason why many companies are not willing to change working hours and be flexible is because they don’t know how to, have never had to, and wouldn’t know where to start anyway. I wonder how differently those companies would do things if they were starting from scratch now? There are some great companies they could take inspiration from all over the world. Take a look at Cisco for a start who are really walking the walk and talking the talk in way of flexible working conditions.

    Developments in communication technology has had a massive impact on the way organisations can do business, the question is have the companies embraced these developments to their potential. If they did would the possibility of a more flexible working week have an effect on the work life balance of the employee? If workers were happier would there be as much sickness, divorce or staff turnover?
    Emma Ranson Bellamy

  4. Sense of perspective
    It is good to get a bit of balance back into this subject.
    i suspect that most people achieve some balance by leaving or doing the hours/jobs that suit their needs
    if someone choses to work 70 hours a week it is likely that he/she is finding the right sort of balance for himself/herself
    At risk of stirring up the hornets nest; is work-life balance a female thing?
    I know the answer is NO but given the predominant social norms and the importance of child care then i suspect that really it is just a variation on the need for flexible working hours.
    Peter

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