Is work-life out of balance?

Work is now taking up a bigger part of everyone’s ‘life’, but what happened to the work-life balance everyone strives for? Is it even possible anymore? Maybe it’s time we stopped aiming for work-life balance and embrace work-life integration.

David Quinn: BrightHR Social Media Manager

Clean eating and junk food, exercise and relaxation, work and life, yin and yang. They say it’s all about finding that healthy balance: too much of one and it all falls down. But when it comes to work and life have we been getting the balance all wrong?

Small business owners know there’s a lot of the work but sometimes not much of the life, and that comes with the territory. But it’s not just employers that are feeling the effect, a recent survey showed that four in five UK office workers check their work email after leaving the office - and a third even log on before they get out of bed in the morning. Work is now taking up a bigger part of everyone’s ‘life’, but what happened to the balance? Is it time we accepted that a balance isn’t possible for everyone?

The shift in the balance

Work-life balance used to work: you did your job and clocked off at the end of the day, then the life bit could continue, free from any of those pesky work distractions. When I ask my parents about work-life balance they see them as two separate things. Their attitude is that they work to enjoy a better life. To be able to afford to go on holiday, to pay the bills, to enjoy meals out, to buy that new car. But that’s my parents’ generation and the generations before that. In a way it doesn’t matter if they enjoy work, they just see it as a means to an end. “A job's a job” as my Mum says to me.

Somewhere along the line things changed: mobile phones, emails, the connected digital world. The two separate worlds of work and life blurred, the balance shifted. Just think about your own life, how many of you check your emails at home, outside of office hours? I’m guessing it's a good majority. A job stopped being ‘just a job’ and became something bigger.

As the lines blurred many people, especially Millennials, stopped seeing a job as just a job, as just a paycheque, and instead wanted to do work they feel passionate about, that they care about and that they love doing. That’s not to say they’re now working every hour of every day, it just means they’ve accepted, and occasionally welcomed the fact that they will be thinking about, and doing, work outside of the office. But that’s ok because their jobs are part of their lives.

But what happened to the work-life balance? We seem to be in a transitional phase and both sides seem to be losing out. We have the ‘old school’ who saw work-life as two separate things but have been dragged into the new ways of working outside of hours and the ‘new school’ who want to merge their work and life as one but are tied down to a 9-5 working day by organisations. Either way, work-life balance has gone.

“...this idea of work-life balance is the biggest bulls**t on the planet. Every achiever I know has more work than he or she could ever do. What it really is is work-life integration.” - Tony Robbins

Is work-life integration the way?

So if work-life balance isn’t working, what is work-life integration and is it any better? We look at some of the aspects of work-life integration and the things to consider.

9-5 vs working your way

‘We've all learnt how to look at our emails on Sunday night. But very few of us have learnt how to go to the movies on Monday afternoon.’ - Ricardo Semler

We all work better at different times, some people find they get more done early in the morning, some late at night. Some find they get work done at 3am, the maniacs. For some it’s not about when they work best but what’s best for their lifestyles. Take parents for example. Wouldn’t it be great if you could drop your kids off at school, do a few hours of work, pick them up and then continue with your work later on in the evening? In 2015 the CIPD found that nearly one-third of parents who work more than 45 hours per week admitted to seeing their children for less than one hour per night on weekdays and it’s the reason, along with high costs of childcare care, that we’ve seen a surge in young mothers setting up their own businesses. Monday - Friday 9-5 doesn't suit everyone.

So should work start to facilitate different ways of working? It’s all up to the company themselves and how they operate; for many a set a working day is the only option but for many there can be flexibility. For some, a truly flexible working pattern may suit their business and employees. Employees can work when they want, from where they want. For others they may require employees to be available, or physically in work, at certain required times, say 11 -3. Outside of those required hours employees can work when it suits.

Outcomes and deliverables vs. hours

We seem to have adopted the idea that if you work longer, and harder, you will be more successful. But with the changes in technology, it is now possible to work every hour of the day. Work-life balance truly out of the window. We often see these ‘hard workers’ as people to be admired, but is this a sign that as a society we value work rather than life and wellbeing? Should it be this way?

The on-demand 24-hour culture, combined with factors such as tough economic conditions and increased job competition, has also led to a culture of presenteeism. This is where people come into the office when they really shouldn’t be there (due to illness, for example). In 2015 the CIPD reported that nearly one-third of staff persistently turn up to work ill. But it isn’t just in the case of illness, it can also come in the form of getting in early or staying late to show ‘commitment’ and in a bid to improve job prospects. And it’s no wonder, as a recent study from Ricoh shows, that 41% of employees said they felt bosses favoured those who worked beyond their contracted hours.

So as you can see, long working hours and a culture of presenteeism have become the norm and something to strive to, but it’s also become a big problem, not just for the employee but also for business. A 2012 Bupa report found that absenteeism cost UK employers £8.4 billion a year and shockingly presenteeism cost £15.1 billion a year. This is backed up by Cary Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology & Health at Manchester University, who considered presenteeism to be “the biggest threat to UK workplace productivity”.

In the new world of work-life integration is it time we stopped focussing on the hours and shifted our thinking to the outcomes? Instead of rewarding the hours spent in the office reward on the work that is done, instead of working all the hours you can, focus on the key projects. Of course, this might be an idealistic view and to get anywhere near it would require difficult transitions. Bonuses for outcomes rather than hours worked for example. But it could be one of the ways start to turn around the issues mentioned above.

Completely switching off

With this on-demand and pressurised working culture, many have found issues with switching off, and it seems that taking a full holiday allowance has become somewhat of a luxury. Take a recent survey from Glassdoor which found that the average UK employee uses only three quarters (77%) of their annual leave. This could be down to a number of reasons, however, factors could include colleagues or boss contacting them, the fear of falling behind with their work, or worry that no one else can do their job while they are absent. There are even cases of people taking holidays in an attempt to catch up on work they haven’t yet got round to yet!

But how can we change this? First, employers need to encourage workers to take their full allocation of time off. This may seem like madness to a small business owner but there are no benefits of having overworked, unproductive employees.

Second, you can set a strategy in terms of communication out of office; for example, no emails or comms after a certain time, only work critical stuff etc. People will always check their phones, and it’s important not to impose limits on working flexibly, but you should also send a clear message showing how a work-life balance is important; to never blur the lines between work and home life. Promote the right culture, and create the right amount of trust to prevent this ever being abused.

These are just some of the ways companies could start to think about the new world of work-life integration. You don’t have to agree with it, if you like the work-life balance mantra then fine. The moral really is to get a life.