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
- Benefits – your flexible friend?
- Who remembers industrial relations?
- HRZone stirs up porn probe
- Compensation culture or fair treatment?
- Mind your Ps and Qs
- Assessment Centres – are they worth it?
- What’s in a name?
- Disciplinary dilemmas divulged
- Employee engagement – realism or wishful thinking?
- Internal communication – who told you about that?
- Is there a place for ethics in HR?
- Employment Law in 2005 – a case of over-regulation?
- Pensions – whose crisis is it?
- The 2005 Election – what does it mean for HR?