The DTI's new work/life survey of workers across five sectors points up big variations in stress levels and in hopes for achieving a balance, reports Maureen Rice. Take part in our quiz and see how your own work style fits in a scale that runs from treadmill athlete to free spirit
Four years ago, MT published what was to become the first of our now-famous work/life surveys in these pages. We ran it initially as a one-off to test what felt like a new mood in the workforce, but we were shocked by the results. A majority of respondents felt resentment, anger and misery at the demands of their job and the lack of time available to them for their families and private lives, with knock-on negative effects on their health, relationships, children and performance at work. None of which would be news to anyone these days, but four years ago no-one had realised the levels of dissent and unhappiness in the white-collar workforce.
That survey made headlines and sparked the debate that has since made 'work/life balance' one of the buzz-phrases in the lexicon of modern living.
Two years later, the Government launched its Work-Life Balance Campaign to encourage awareness of work/life issues and the possibilities of flexible working, and began drafting legislation to give workers more control over their lives.
We repeated our survey in the following two years, in doing so, broadening the subject from 'How are we feeling?' to 'What do we want?'. We discovered that 'balance' is surprisingly difficult to define, but that a combination of economic and social factors - including the rise of working women and the move to a service and knowledge-based economy - had fundamentally shifted our aspirations about work and the way we live.
At the time of our last survey in 2001, organisations had raised their awareness of the importance of 'balance', but most still had a long way to go in translating commendable theory into workable practice. Since then, we've witnessed the fallout from 11 September, a global downturn and the collapse of Enron and WorldCom, in scandals that threaten to undermine basic faith in the corporation. So where are we now? Do those things make work/life balance seem insignificant, or more important than ever? Are our organisations any better at delivering on the theory? And have we reached a point where we can draw a definitive picture of what a well-balanced life looks like?
This year, our despatch from the work/life front comes from exclusive new research from the DTI, which looked at issues of job satisfaction, stress, balance and attitude in five different sectors: accountancy, media, voluntary, manufacturing and retail. It reveals what many of us have long suspected: work/life balance can't be bought with money or granted by HR departments alone, no matter how enlightened. Rather, it's a complicated jigsaw in which business buy-in, intelligent policies and quality management are fitted around a great central foundation: our own personality and attitude not just to our jobs, but to the role of work in our lives.
A look at the big-picture results across the sectors reveals a familiar pattern: men still get more balance than women and are much more likely to have outside interests such as sport, committees and charity work, as women use most of their spare time for domestic work and childcare.
Men are also more likely to put work before their personal lives, while women are more likely to take their stress home with them.
Balance is becoming more important for everyone - one in five of all workers would like their life to be more balanced than it is now, but just don't know how to manage it; and twice as many workers would rather work shorter hours than win the Lottery. But interestingly, respondents also report feeling less stressed this year than last.
We could be cynical and suggest that 2001 must have been a hell of a year, or we could argue that the debate about work/life balance is finally translating into practical solutions to help people feel less stressed.
But reading between the lines of the research, there is a creeping sense of resignation and acceptance that this is the way things are and that the long-hours culture is non-negotiable: a majority say that it's not their employers' responsibility to help them balance their work and life, and one in four admit that they would like to work less but believe their career would suffer if they did.
But what makes this research particularly interesting is the portraits of conditions and attitudes in the separate sectors. The results show that there's no such thing as work/life balance, but lots of different work/life balances, with different parts of the jigsaw taking on greater importance at different touch-points in our working lives: our age, our profession, our seniority at work and our personal circumstances all affect our perceptions of what is stressful and what makes a healthy balance.
Accountants were the most stressed of the five sectors, despite having the highest access to flexible working options (83% have formal or informal flexibility) and the most help with family responsibilities (19% use private childcare, 22% employ a cleaner and 13% a gardener, while 67% rely on their partner). Nearly a quarter of them (23%) report feeling 'very stressed' overall, and hit their worst point in their forties, when they are most likely to reach a senior position - then the figure shoots up to 35%.
Their stress comes from long commutes, a strong culture of presenteeism, and from their sense of pride and responsibility about their work - they are the sector most likely to say that they put work first, and find it harder to switch off when they leave the office. Asked for the single biggest cause of their stress, they nominated, Eeyore-like, the worsening economic situation.
Next most stressed of the five sectors were retail workers, with all age ranges feeling pressure. This is the sector offering the least flexibility and the least help with family responsibilities.
Only 35% get help from their partner and 45% say they have no help at all; 20% feel 'very stressed' at work, with almost as many - 15% - also feeling 'very stressed' at home.
Retailing was the worst sector for long hours, 24% of staff working 60 hours or more per week. These workers have the least sense of pride in their jobs and are most likely to feel that their company doesn't make much effort to help them balance their home and work life - although they also have the least faith that flexible working would help them improve their work/life balance, even if their bosses could be bothered to give it to them. Their own nomination for the biggest stress trigger in their life is not work at all, but personal and family problems.
Media workers do the most overtime of all five sectors and are the least likely to work flexitime. Their most stressful period is in their twenties, when they are trying to become established in their careers, and they nominated finding and moving jobs as the biggest cause of stress in the past year. And yet they report only middling levels of stress overall (they are the third most stressed of the five) and are the best of all the sectors at switching off from work and relaxing in their free time.
This doesn't mean that they don't care about their jobs, however: they have a strong sense of personal involvement in their work. Indeed, they constitute the second most likely sector to put work before all other commitments, with 34% believing that working long hours shows their dedication. However, 30% would love to work less and have a better balance, but don't for fear that their career would suffer.
Manufacturing workers are only moderately stressed, but that's not related to a more supportive working environment. They have the second-lowest levels of flexible working, and the biggest family responsibilities (79% compared with just 34% in the media), but the worst parental leave (46% versus 65% in the media and voluntary sectors). So why not more stressed?
Because they simply refuse to let it all get to them. These are the workers least likely to put work first and most likely to agree that they work only to pay the bills. However, they are also the sector whose members most agree that it is not an employer's responsibility to help them achieve a work/life balance (just as well), and who nominate renovating and moving house or personal and family problems as their biggest source of stress.
Happiest and least stressed of the five sectors are the voluntary sector workers. This is partly because they have the most supportive work structures: 84% have formal or informal flexible working options, 31% can take career breaks (compared with 13% in manufacturing) and 11% receive childcare assistance (as do just 3% of retailers). Not surprisingly, they are the sector with the strongest sense of employer support for helping them achieve a work/life balance (46% think their boss is making 'a real effort'), but, just as importantly, they love their jobs - 50% say their job is 'an important part of who I am' and 88% - the most of any sector - declare that they are proud of what they do.
The research confirms again what everyone except the Institute of Directors already knows: that job satisfaction coupled with a supportive working structure that acknowledges life outside work leads to lower stress and a happier workplace in general. But also that the business-case reasons for helping us all to become better balanced can't be realised by concessions like flexible working on their own.
As the manufacturing and retail sectors both nominated the 'life' part of work/life as their biggest stress point, there are wider cultural issues to be addressed unless balance is going to become a largely male, middle-class perk. The way people feel about their jobs - are they worth doing?
Am I making a contribution? Does anyone even notice? - is crucial. Two people may work the same long hours, but the voluntary worker, in a job she loves and feels proud of, doesn't feel stressed at the end of it, while the retail worker, in a job she doesn't care about (and vice versa) does. The notion of quality management is a contentious one for UK plc, but it has been largely overlooked in the work/life debate. According to this research, it should now be moving into the spotlight.
The final and most fascinating results of this survey focus on personal attitude. Broadly, we all fit into one of five psychological types when it comes to work, and they determine how we respond to factors such as responsibility and stress. The biggest challenge now is not for HR departments trying to turn policy into best practice but for gifted and well-trained managers to engage and inspire across all five types.
WHAT'S YOUR WORK STYLE?
How do you feel about work - not just the job you do now, but the role of work in your life? A significant finding from this research is the importance of personal attitudes and behaviour in our perceptions of work/life balance. Two people may work the same hours in a similar job, yet only one will report feeling stressed.
The researchers found that most of us fall into one of five main 'attitude' categories that underpin our approach to work, stress and balance. Which category are you?
< 1 There's a sudden crisis in the office, and fixing it means you need to stay late. How do you react? a Let's keep our sense of priority. The business won't collapse if we wait until tomorrow to fix this. b I'd like to stay, but I can't do it at such short notice. c In my position, I'm expected to stay for as long as it takes. d I'll stay for a while, but not too late. e This as an opportunity to show what I'm made of. 2 There's a promotion coming up, and you've been invited to apply for it. It means more responsibility and more money. Do you... a Apply - more money is always nice. b Go all out to get it, working harder and better than ever. c Feel pleased to be asked, but decide against applying on quality-of-life grounds. d You know you could do it, but it's too big a commitment and the timing is wrong. e Apply - you have mixed feelings about the extra work, but you can't be seen to not want it. 3 The company is going through a downturn, and rumours of cut-backs drift through the office like a bad smell. How do you react? a Feel fairly confident that you won't be selected to leave. b Feel torn - you'd be 50% gutted and 50% secretly relieved if you had to go. c It's not a great time to be looking for a job, but if it happens you'll be fine. d Spend a morning calculating your redundancy package and how much time off it will buy you. e There's nothing you can do about it, except worry. 4 Your boss - who has been a personal mentor - is leaving the firm. Do you... a Ask for his opinion and advice about his replacement. b Organise his leaving party - none of this 'no fuss' rubbish. c Book your holiday now, before the new boss arrives. d Worry - his replacement may not be so supportive. e Send him a personal note thanking him for his help. 5 A pitch for a major piece of new business has been brought forward - to the day you're due to fly out on holiday. Do you... a Take the holiday - there will always be another pitch. b Cancel the holiday. c Take the holiday but take your laptop and mobile so you can help if necessary and get updates on the outcome. d Brief your colleagues well, trust them to deliver and take the holiday as planned. e You couldn't cancel the holiday even if you wanted to - your family would be too disappointed. 6 The impossible actually happens - you win big on the National Lottery. Do you... a Cut your hours, but otherwise carry on much as you are. b Leave work the same day and prepare for your new life of leisure. c Resign with relief, but a sense of regret about leaving your friends and colleagues. d Resign, and consider funding your own start-up with the money. e Resign, but work your notice. SCORING 1. a:1; b:2; c:5; d:3; e:4 2. a:1; b:4; c:3; d:2; e:5 3. a:4; b:5; c:3; d:1; e:2 4. a:4; b:1; c:5; d:2; e:3 5. a:1; b:4; c:5; d:3; e:2 6. a:3; b:1; c:2; d:4; e:5
27+ TREADMILL ATHLETE
You are probably well established in an important position, with serious responsibilities. You're proud of your work and enjoy it, but issues of balance are becoming more important. However, you feel it's hard for you to work fewer hours or take a more relaxed attitude to work without compromising your career or business. You think about this a lot, but can't see a way around the problem. Forty per cent of Treadmill Athletes in the DTI research admit to feeling stressed.
Job: MD of DP Financial People, supplying financial experts to a range of businesses
Personal: Divorced with children of 11 and 13; re-married with children aged 5 and 3
'I work 70 to 80 hours a week. This firm is a start-up and that's what it takes. I've always worked like this. Work is where I've gained my sense of identity and achievement. I'm lucky in loving what I do and having high energy levels, but this impacts on other people. My first marriage collapsed because I was never there, never saw my kids. I don't want to make the same mistake, but my wife and business partner have to tell me to stop. A couple of years ago I'd made enough money to take a two-year sabbatical and give my family real quality time. I prefer to take time in big chunks.'
22-27 SUCCESS SEEKER
You love to work. 'Career' is an important part of who you are, and you take great pride in your achievements. You are building your future success, and you're prepared to invest your time and talent heavily in your job.
In this research, you're the most likely to agree that 'work comes first', but you're not a machine - 'me time' is still important to you, but you tend to get your sense of balance by being very well organised and making every second count.
Job: Research analyst, Close Brothers (Corporate Finance)
Personal: Unmarried, no children
'My average working day is 9am to 9pm. We usually eat at our desks before we go home. I try to keep weekends free but probably work one in four, and I've cancelled endless social engagements and the occasional holiday because something came up at work. It's a hard-working, high-pressure life, but I thrive on it. I'm laying the foundation for my future: I want to do well, make money, and buy myself choices for later on. My private life suffers - luckily, my girlfriend also works in the City and she understands.
I'd like to get married and have children one day, but it wouldn't be right to carry on working like this then.'
12-17 HOME HERO
You're at a point in your life where your responsibilities and commitments are at a peak. You have a job and serious personal responsibilities, such as caring for young children or elderly relatives. Committed and hard-working, you get more in in a day than most people manage in two, but still find fitting everything in a struggle. Your work/life balance is not ideal; you are often exhausted and sometimes feel stressed, but can't see a way to slow down for a while yet.
Job: Logistics manager at MTM Products
Personal: Married, children aged 11 and 12
'I've worked since my boys were babies. I used to child-share: one mother would have the kids in the morning while the other worked, then swap for the afternoons. If one of the children was sick, it was a nightmare. It gets easier as they get older, but my life is still fairly full. I work 31 hours at MTM - 9.15 to 3.15 - then go home, sort the boys out, cook a meal, clear up, do the ironing, sort out school stuff for the next day and fall into bed. I'm lucky to work here, because they are flexible and understanding. I start an hour later in the school holidays, and if one of the boys is ill I can come in, collect my work and take it home. There's not much time left for me!'
18-21 BALANCE MASTER
You are a prime example of how a combination of circumstance and attitude creates work/life balance. You feel comfortable with who you are and what you do. You're good at your job and have no need to prove anything; you're committed and take pride in what you do, but don't see why you should work ridiculous hours. You take responsibility for living the way you want to. You work shorter days or weeks now, and feel satisfied with your work and private life.
Job: Manager for Kinderquest Nurseries
Personal: Married, one son aged 6
'I used to work full-time, but last year Kinderquest held a conference about work/life balance and decided to offer managers the chance to work fewer hours - a thing we thought couldn't be done. Now I work Tuesday to Friday. It's incredible how much difference it makes. I take my son swimming and have his friends over for tea. I feel like a proper mother.
And I get a lot of domestic stuff out of the way so the whole family benefits - we get chore-free weekends. My deputy covers for me on Mondays, and I don't worry. My work is interesting and fulfilling, and I have enough time for my family. The company has proved that flexible working can work for everyone.'
6-11 FREE SPIRIT
You may enjoy your work, but it doesn't define who you are. 'Career' as a concept is not central to your sense of self - work is necessary to pay the bills, is enjoyable (you hope), and the source of a good bit of your social life, but you are more than your job title. You're happy to progress steadily rather than push for promotion. Your stress levels tend to be healthy, as you have an in-built mechanism that stops you getting too worked up about work, whatever happens.
Job: Freelance production manager for design companies
Personal: Unmarried, no children
'I like my work, but the important thing in life is to be happy. No matter how great a job is, it's important to keep it in perspective. I think my generation understands balance much better than our fathers' generation did, and we've reacted against a lot of that 1980s work culture. My big goal in life is to be married and have kids, and to spend as much time with them as possible. Then, once they're grown up, I'd like to move somewhere like Kenya and run an animal sanctuary. I enjoy money, but only as a means to allow me to do what I want.'