Still juggling after all these years

It's a cause that MT took up in the mid-90s, but in the decade since then, have we made any progress in establishing a healthy equilibrium between our working day and our personal time? Is it still an issue? Richard Reeves weighs up the evidence.

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Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Question: Which of these countries has the lowest average weekly working hours - France, Italy, Spain, Sweden or the UK? Answer: the UK. Surprising, isn't it? You only have to glance at the press to form the impression that Britons are slaving at their desks for all but the few hours necessary for eating a ready meal. Meanwhile, our European cousins slip out of their offices with plenty of time for a glass of vino, a sauna and a long family meal. But the average working hours of the countries mentioned stack up as follows: Italy 39.7 hours, Spain 39.5, France 37.4, Sweden 37.1, and the UK 36.8.

Of course, there's a catch. These figures are for all employees, including part-timers - and there are more part-time employees in the UK than elsewhere. Full-time workers do indeed put in longer hours on this side of the Channel. And almost all studies of work/life balance focus on full-timers. But in comparing the UK to other European countries, there is a real danger of sizing up apples next to pears. On the Continent and in Scandinavia, most workers work about the same hours - between 35 and 40 a week - while the British workplace contains a dizzying range of working shifts. So it is certainly true that one in five UK employees put in more than 45 hours a week, but one in four workers put in fewer than 30. In working hours at least, the UK leads the world in diversity.

But work/life balance is a home-grown hot topic. Since MT helped to launch the term and the debate a decade ago, it is has become a staple of the business lexicon, the focus of considerable academic attention and - especially in recent years - a political football, too. What's it all about? Just how bad is our work/life balance? And is the term already past its sell-by date? Has a cutting-edge idea descended to banal cliche? Is it, anyway, good for business?

Richenda Gambles, a lecturer at the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of Oxford, thinks the idea still has legs. 'It is still there as an issue,' she says, 'although I think work/life balance is moving towards a concern with flexibility, parenting and the nature of a good childhood.'

The phrase has always been contested: plenty of commentators (myself included) have attacked it for the presumption that life is better than work, and that the two are separable in a clear-cut way that allows a calculation of 'balance' between them. The quality of debate has also suffered from being largely anecdotal rather than analytical - a failing this piece tries to address.

Rhona Rapaport, along with Gambles and Susan Lewis the co-author of The Myth of Work-life Balance: The challenge of our time for men, women and societies, has always criticised the term. She refers instead to the need to integrate work/life. 'This terminology expresses our belief in the need to diminish the separation between these two spheres of life in ways that will change both, rather than merely reallocating - or 'balancing' - time between them as they currently exist.' And the Work Foundation has long advocated the concept of 'time sovereignty', of worker control over their hours, as an alternative formulation.

The continuing concern with the issue certainly cannot be simply explained with reference to working hours. Not only do a high proportion of British workers opt for part-time work, the incidence of long-hours working among full-timers is dropping, too. In fact, its prevalence seems to have peaked just as interest in work/life balance began. At the beginning of the 1990s, 33% of employees worked more than 45 hours a week - in late 1997 and early 1998 the proportion rose above 37% but has been declining since, and now stands at 28%. In this sense, the fever of poor work/life balance was diagnosed just as it was breaking.

The post-1997 Labour government has been explicitly pursuing policies to curb long-hours working, with increases in maternity leave and the introduction of a statutory minimum for holiday, paternity and parental leave, and a legal right for the parents of young children to request flexible working arrangements. On the other hand, the Government has refused to introduce a compulsory maximum working week, preferring the carrot to the stick. (And quite right too: how France, a country that supposedly embodies the value of liberty can ban consenting adults from conducting a legal activity for more than a state-sanctioned number of hours a week is frankly incroyable, a fact that even French workers themselves have now woken up to.) Firms, meanwhile, are getting their act together, with increasing numbers offering flexible work options: two-thirds now do so, according to the Work Foundation.

On the face of it, the work/life balance movement can pack its bags. Most of the indicators appear to be pointing in the right direction. And yet the issue retains - indeed is increasing - its salience. The new Tory leader David Cameron, along with his concern for the ice-caps and young hoodies, is worried about it. (As far as history can tell, the phrase never passed Margaret Thatcher's lips.) This is because the term, clumsy and inaccurate though it is, is a means of expressing a range of underlying social, familial and economic issues. 'Work/life balance' has come to be a proxy for 'a good life'. It taps into a desire for greater autonomy at work; a shift in gender roles within the family; the possibilities of technology; and an 'intensification' of working life - indeed, of life generally.

Employees - especially younger ones - are chafing against the fixed-hours, fixed-place culture that has characterised working life for two centuries. The liberating potential of technology is not yet being seized: but the incongruity of industrial time-management techniques is growing. There is a good deal of evidence that a sense of control over working hours is more important than the actual number of those hours.

Research by Alex Jones, an expert on flexibility at the Work Foundation, points to the value of autonomy. 'Our findings suggest that achieving work/life balance is about people having the opportunity to have some control over when, where and how they work,' she says, 'so that they can pursue activities and aspirations as they wish.'

In a recent survey, Jones found that although more than half of those people running their own business reported working 'very long hours', this group were among the most content with their work/life balance: 22% were 'very satisfied' with this aspect of their lives.

Gambles agrees that work/life balance is often interchangeable with flexibility. 'There is a strong argument for people to have the opportunity to work flexibly,' she says. 'There is no such thing any longer as the archetypal, ideal worker. There is just a whole load of people with a whole load of stuff going on in their lives.'

And as more graduates enter the labour market - following the rapid expansion of higher education over the past 10 years - the demand for more self-managed working time is only likely to grow. After the parents of young children, it is professionals under 25 who report the highest levels of dissatisfaction with work/life balance, according to the Work Foundation study.

Concern about work/life balance is rising most quickly among men, a reflection of changes in the nature of fatherhood and of family life. With most mothers of pre-school children now in employment, dads are both expected and often committed to doing more of the childcare. Beverly Hughes, the Children's Minister, in a forthcoming report from the Institute for Public Policy Research, is calling for a doubling of paternity leave from two to four weeks - as well as for an extension of the 'right to request' flexible work to all employees.

Households with more equal division of earnings are also showing a more equal - although far from entirely equal - division of domestic labour. New dads, then, are in the vanguard of the workplace revolution. The juggling of work and home is no longer a female monopoly. Couples are having to learn the skills of 'joint juggling' now.

Gambles insists that the official rhetoric about 'hard-working families' misses half the story. 'We need hard-caring families, too.' Most people believe that work/life balance is primarily an issue for parents. And the truth is that flexibility for those seeking to combine paid work with raising the next generation is simply more important than it is for those who want to rehearse with their new band - a fact that the work/life balance campaigners have often sought to obscure for fear of appearing to favour parents. We should favour parents.

The third subterranean issue fuelling the work/life balance movement is the realisation of at least some of the potential of technology to free workers from the workplace, and the grind of the daily commute. Fixed office hours are increasingly incongruous in the age of the iPod, MySpace and the BlackBerry. Teleworking is on the rise, not among 'free agents' working in Devon cottages, but among ordinary employees who work from home one or more days a week. As broadband increasingly covers the nation, so more of the nation's workers can stay at home.

Concerns about work/life balance also reflect a growing sense of stress, tiredness and a lack of time. Work is part of the picture. Francis Green at the University of Kent, author of Demanding Work, has persuasively demonstrated that work is becoming more intense, with tighter deadlines, fewer and shorter breaks and more personal engagement. It should be said that intensity is not necessarily a bad thing: some of the best things in life are intense (sex and chocolate are just two examples). But, of course, intensity is tiring, and a third of respondents to Jones' survey agreed with the statement 'in the evenings I am so tired I just fall asleep on the sofa'.

But Jones points out that the figures were the same for both full-time and part-time workers. It may be that work has become more intense, but so has life. Parents are more intensively involved in their children's lives and progress, holidays are more common and more complex, and the opportunities for leisure activities are increasing exponentially. Jones points out that part-time workers were as tired as full-timers; it is our lives that are tiring, not just our jobs.

It is for these reasons that work/life balance remains on the agenda. How far the movement is succeeding is another matter: working hours are coming down, but stress levels are not. Shirley Conran worried years ago that work/life balance would 'become a cliche even before it has achieved anything'. That danger remains. In corporate circles, it has become a 'nodding dog' issue, one of those aspirations that everyone feels the need to sign up to, at least in public.

Company directors start nodding in Pavlovian reflex simply at the sound of the phrase. ('Diversity' does it too.) But the pace of change in organisations in terms of granting more freedom over working time is still excruciatingly slow. Yes, firms are moving, but continents have drifted faster. And in many organisations, senior managers often stress the importance of work/life balance before admitting, in an acceptably self-deprecating fashion, that they themselves work like Roman slaves: something along the lines of 'work/life balance is terribly important, but I must say my wife wishes I could practice what I preach' is the common tone. Do as I say, not as I do. But, of course, life isn't like that. If senior people work all the time, the clear message is that if you want to be senior you have to work all the time.

It would be a shame if work/life balance faded away into the dustbin of business jargon. Underneath its banal-sounding aspirations are some deep-seated, radical challenges to organisations and to individuals. If work/life balance means anything of value at all, it is a clarion call for a better quality of life, for better parenting and, above all, for greater personal autonomy. It seems to me that work/life balance is either a crusade for human freedom or it is nothing.

JOANNE GUBBAY

PIONEER CHANGES TACK

When MT interviewed City lawyer Joanne Gubbay in 1998, she was a pioneering four-day-a-weeker at law firm Berwin Leighton. After a long negotiation, the 37-year-old had achieved a Monday-to-Thursday deal doing 9 till 7 with an agreement that she'd take client phone calls while looking after her daughters, then four and 18 months, on Friday at home. Help was at hand - her husband worked from home.

Gubbay might have expected problems when the person with whom she negotiated her flexible contract implied that she'd be unwise to assume she would be on four-fifths of her old salary, saying: 'There's a school of thought that says it's not five days down to four, it's seven days down to four.'

Anyway, it didn't work out. 'It actually turned into the worst of all worlds,' she recalls. 'I slogged my guts out to prove that nobody was being disadvantaged by my working part-time. I had all the stress and the pressure of being a lawyer and none of the career progression.'

In 2000, Gubbay stopped practising as a lawyer and switched to the firm of Ashurst as head of training - a non-client-facing role. So she has kissed goodbye to an awful lot of money. 'Financially, if I'd stayed on the partnership track, life would have been very different. I'd have achieved the Holy Grail and be earning significantly more' - just 16.8% of Ashurst partners are women. 'But here I am, perfectly comfortable and happily employed. You make your choices in life and I don't regret having the time at home with my children that I've enjoyed. They have never complained about me working and I've never missed a school event.'

But as we move further into the 21st century, Gubbay sees a change in the air. 'The profession is fighting to retain its lawyers now. Generation Y has a different attitude to work: they've got a lot more choice, and some are prepared to exercise it. It's a lifestyle issue - and probably a time-bomb.'

This applies especially to women, and Gubbay is aware of recent research from the Institute of Education predicting that a third of UK women graduates will never have children. 'If I had a crystal ball and I knew that I would not be getting into the dilemma of childlessness, I would have tried to get my partnership before having my family. This would have given me a lot more professional and personal choices. But it would have a been a real gamble - and at the time it was one I was not prepared to take.'

SIMEON BIRD

AND THE DADDY OF A DECISION

When MT calls to catch up with Simeon Bird - back in 1999 he was young, free, single and successful - it soon becomes clear that his work/life balance is about to get a lot more complicated. He can't talk because his TV producer wife Gabriella has just gone into labour with their first child.

Two days later, we make contact with the proud father, just returned home with his new family ahead of two weeks' paternity leave - only one of them fully paid. Mother and baby are both doing well, he reports happily. And Dad? He's fine too, but sounds like he could do with a good kip. He might even get one, in six months or so.

That accounts for the 'life' side of the balance, but he has been far from idle at work. Shortly after his first appearance in MT, he quit Twinings for a one-year, full-time MBA at Bath. 'I didn't feel I was learning a lot,' he explains. 'I was contributing more than I was getting back. It wasn't that I felt exactly deficient in any way, but an MBA gives you great confidence. Now I can talk finance to the FD, for example, without feeling that I don't know what I'm talking about.'

After a final-term project at mobile phone operator Orange, he got a job in the UK marketing department; he's still there, having progressed to head of multimedia propositions, and he has always had his eye on the next move. 'I'm applying for roles at the next level up now, as they become available.'

There's no doubt that he is a driven and ambitious man who is quite content to work long hours at a job he finds both stimulating and rewarding. Does he have any feel for how fatherhood might affect his attitude to his career? 'I think it's too soon to say,' he admits. 'I'm ready for it and I do want to be an involved father, but I don't really know what that means yet. I still feel a bit naive about it all.'

He's not expecting his working day to get any shorter, but he'll try starting earlier - 7.30 instead of 8.30am - and leaving on time more often. One thing he doesn't want to do more of is work from home. 'Generally, I prefer to be in the office. This is such a fast-moving business that you need to be there.'

But at 36, he is beginning to see a limit to his goals. 'When you get to VP level in a firm like Orange, you're talking about a big jump in commitment: 8am to 8pm, six days a week.' He's a way off VP yet but admits that the prospect of downshifting to a smaller firm is getting more attractive. 'I'm not sure I want to be working that hard right through my forties. I could go and be a bigger fish in a smaller pond instead.'

NICK TURRELL

REFORMED COMMUTER

Nick Turrell is a work/life balance success story. In 1998 he was fed up with his rat-race commuter lifestyle, missing out on family time and feeling the strain of his daily four-hour slog by train and Tube from Worthing on the south coast to central London and back again. He could only dream of being able to spend a day or two a week working from home.

Fast-forward to 2007, and MT hurries to meet Turrell at the London office of Talisman Communications - where he is now a director - on a Monday morning ... 'because I won't be in the office for the rest of the week'. Things have clearly changed. 'Back then,' he says, 'although I wanted to work from home, the technology wasn't quite in place to make it a realistic proposition. It has come on in leaps and bounds since.'

Now, armed with laptop, broadband and a virtual private network system to allow remote access to company servers, Turrell and his six colleagues have the flexibility to work wherever and whenever they like. They also have the latest VoIP phones in the office, which normally allow calls to be switched through to a mobile phone or another landline. On the day we meet, however, the system in their building is down. 'It's ironic. If I'd known before I set off I would probably have stayed at home,' he says.

A typical week for Turrell now means two or three days in the office, rarely more. 'When I started working from home there was an amount of scepticism from my colleagues, but I am disciplined and self-motivated and just get on with it. I do my e-mails first thing, then I might go to the gym for an hour. After that, I get a clear run from 9am to 3pm. I am more productive at home because there are fewer distractions.'

Come mid-afternoon, however, when his children Rhys, 18, and Holly, 12, get home from school, his peace is shattered. 'I often get turfed off my desk by my daughter wanting to get on MSN,' says Turrell. But he is very happy that he now spends more time with wife Angela and their kids. However, their autistic son Liam, aged 15, now spends a lot of time away from home. 'Liam is quite profoundly disabled and now attends a residential school in Dorset. But he's home in the holidays and some weekends.'

As an indicator of how far things have come in the past 10 years, when the firm moved office recently Turrell was able to question whether it had to maintain an expensive London base any more. 'I can see a day when we won't need an office at all,' he says. 'We do need to get round a table and chat regularly, but we could do that in a hotel.'

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