According to a recent workplace wellbeing survey, a sizeable minority (39%) of employees globally feel that their work and personal life isn’t all it should be. Another survey also states that a whopping 94% of managers work longer than their contracted hours1.
Being a manager of course often means staying late, tapping away at a keyboard while the only ambient sound is that of the cleaners working hard in the background while the office is depopulated for the evening. But in an ideal world, staying late at the office shouldn’t be the default setting – it should be something that we do when required.
All of which leads to the question: how do we get things back in balance?
The simple answer, of course, would be simply to work fewer hours. In order for that to happen there would need to be a significant cultural change. Even if that did come about, the self-employed among us would undoubtedly continue working longer and taking fewer holidays. So to some extent, big workloads will be a fact of life until some future day when machines are better at human jobs than humans are.
So if you’re currently in a situation where your hours are long and there are too few of them in the day, how can you set about the task of work life balance? Do we just accept that life’s tough and get on with it? Or are there real changes waiting to be made?
The first thing to look at is the quality of our working environment. Many of us are graduates from the school of hard knocks – we’ve seen a variety of workplaces and can compare them. If the environment is good, and the management vision and objectives are clear, then working like there’s no tomorrow is often not too bad. On the other hand, if morale is low and we feel that our progress or productivity is impeded, then maybe it’s a different story.
On a personal level, some balance can be restored by setting some very strict rules. Rather than going home and getting into a kind of limbo between work mode and home mode, we have the power to decide the moment in the day when we say “no more work” and get on with the business of recreation. Sometimes doing this can cause feelings of guilt – but it stands to reason that if you allow yourself some ‘me time’ then you’ll be all the more productive when back at your desk. One way that I’ve found useful to help with this is to map the week out and ensure there are enough spaces in it where there’s time to breathe – to go and do sport or exercise, to try new things, or even just to lie on the sofa with my eyes closed, listening to music.
Another way more and more people are escaping the daily grind of the office is to start working from home. Research released in 2014 revealed that 70% of new businesses in the UK now start at home2. Often viewed as ‘pyjama-clad freelancers’, the 4.2 million ‘homepreneurs’ in the UK reportedly contribute £300 billion to the economy. You can speculate the reasons for the increase in homeworkers – is it the wider economic recovery? Availability of high-speed communications? Rising commercial property rents? At its core though there is an apparent flexibility to working from home that can’t be achieved through the conventional office setup.
Flexible working is an admirable concept. One health expert was recently quoted as saying that a 4 day week could be the answer to workplace stress3. Now, that really could have an effect if it was implemented globally. Could it happen? Well, this guy isn’t alone in calling for a reduced working week – indeed, some inspiring companies have even started trialling reduced working hours to improve staff wellbeing4.
So – what is the answer? In my view, working towards work life balance doesn’t have a simple answer. It is often a gradual process and it isn’t always going to be as balanced one week as it is the next. So the first step for me is about acknowledging that there will be uphills as well as downhills. The next bit is in seeking inspiration. In busy and stressful times we often need to dig deep – so it’s often useful (and fun) to read the first hand experiences of people with very busy lives – biographies of politicians and big businessmen are often full of insight into how to compartmentalise life when so much is going on that it all seems to be overwhelming.
My take on work life balance is that – like most things – it’s a work in progress. It’s also something we all need to bear in mind as a business essential – from the boardroom to the shopfloor. Whether we live to work or work to live, we all need time with our families, hobbies and interests. There’s no silver bullet, of course – but the more conversation, debate and awareness around this topic, the better.
- HR Magazine – ‘Is a work/life balance achievable?’, 15th September 2014
- AXA Business Insurance – ‘Are you part of the home business revolution?’, 18th March 2014
- The Guardian – ‘UK needs four-day week to combat stress, says top doctor’, 1st July 2014
- ThinkProgress – ‘This Company Has A 4-Day Work Week, Pays Its Workers A Full Salary And Is Super Successful’, 18th April 2014