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Work-Life Balance – What Is It And How Do We Find It?

We all strive for greater work-life balance.  Employers even use  “good work-life balance” as an incentive in their recruitment advertising.    But what does it mean?  And how do we achieve it?

What is a balanced approach?

The difficulty is that the phrase “work-life balance” means different things to different people.  To many, it means that they want the flexibility to take their children to school before starting work.  Or they want to leave early to collect them.  Many are willing to “make up the hours” in the evening, once the kids have gone to bed.

For others, it means only working for four days in the week.  Some take this to the extent of working “compressed hours”, where five days’ worth of work are squashed into four days.  Sadly this often means that 10 hour days or more are worked for each of those four days.  This can mean a longer weekend – but how much balance is there  during the four long working days?

Others again want the flexibility to work from any location they choose. This takes out travel time and, ostensibly, leaves more time for home and leisure activities, to balance against work time.  In reality, though, most homeworkers are hard at work for much longer hours than their work-based colleagues.  So the balance may be lost.

Balancing the cost

If balance can be achieved by reducing working hours – then who should pay for it?  When people are less stressed, healthier, happier and more refreshed, they are likely to have a raised level of productivity.  This makes a good case for employers to continue to pay their employees for a full week, even when they have reduced their hours.  If we are still getting the same work for less hours, then why wouldn’t we be prepared to pay the same for it?

Of course, the difficulty is that many employers need to provide their service for full working hours, or even 24/7.  In those cases, they would need to employ extra people to cover the hours. So any benefit the employer may get from improved productivity and better quality work will be negated by the cost of additional staff.

So would people be prepared to take a reduction in their take-home pay, if this meant that they worked fewer hours and had more time with their families?  It is not that easy.  Many people live on a knife-edge where their salary is only just enough to pay for all of their expenses.  More leisure time is likely to equate to larger expenses and so a pay cut is often not really practicable.

A reduction in working hours does not necessarily bring balance

A large proportion of the workforce is already working part-time.  Others are balancing caring duties with work.  Many work in the gig economy and so are employed on an ad-hoc basis.  Others work for themselves, or as contractors.

Technology doesn’t help.  It is too easy to be “always available” to answer that one email, or take that one call from the other side of the world.  Even when we are on holiday, many of us find it impossible to leave work behind and so take our laptops and smart phones with us.

If reduced hours don’t work, how can an employer help?

There are several things you can be doing to help your employees achieve a healthy work-life balance:

  1. The first action you can take is to talk to your employees about how to achieve work-life balance. If you collaborate on a solution then it is more likely to work for everyone.
  2. You should try to avoid a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Everyone has a different idea of what they consider to be a balance. What is great for one person could be a nightmare for someone else.
  3. Don’t expect your employees to work long hours for no extra reward. It is fairly normal for people to work unpaid overtime – especially if they have reached supervisory positions.  Many employers don’t expect this, but most of them accept it and do not take steps to discourage it.  If you need people to work longer hours, then employ more people – or at least pay overtime.
  4. Lead by example. If you are in the office for long hours, then your staff will think that is what you expect of them as well.
  5. Don’t just pay lip service – actually be that flexible employer who expects your employees to have a balanced life.
  6. You can start to reap the rewards of increased productivity, reduced sickness, reduced turnover and happier staff.

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