The MT Work/life balance survey: Age of the flex exec - The conflict between career and personal and domestic pursuits has reached a crisis point, according to the new MT-Ceridian work/life survey. Most managers feel that flexible working - meeting work o

The MT Work/life balance survey: Age of the flex exec - The conflict between career and personal and domestic pursuits has reached a crisis point, according to the new MT-Ceridian work/life survey. Most managers feel that flexible working - meeting work o

by MAURICE RICE
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Has any survey about work ever shown how much we love it, how happy we are with our working conditions? Probably not. One might expect to find that we don't always feel as appreciated as we would like, or earn as much as we want or progress as fast as we think we should. Even so, discovering that half of Britain's managers feel too mentally and physically exhausted to do anything but work and sleep, or that nearly 30% say their lives and work are out of control, are signs of something more serious than disgruntled employees letting off steam. If our survey was intended to take the temperature of the workforce, we must report that the patient is running a high fever.

This is our third annual work/life survey, once again carried out in conjunction with leading work/life consultants Ceridian Performance Partners.

Nearly 2,000 readers of Management Today - Britain's senior managers and professionals - responded to the survey, in which we asked for their views on key issues about their work and home lives. Our first two surveys revealed a growing proportion of stressed-out, overworked managers calling for genuine change to enable them to reclaim their personal and family lives.

We wanted to discover whether the new language of choice and flexibility at work is being translated into new working models, and if work/life issues are being addressed at grass-roots level.

The results show a glass that is half empty. A large proportion of managers are struggling to hold their work and private lives together, with implications for their wider circle of family, friends, community - and their employers. More than 76% say they want to spend more time with their families or partners, and a third confess to not spending enough time with their children. Of all respondents, 44% say they want to make a bigger contribution to their personal and domestic lives but just don't have the time.

How does this personal time-squeeze affect attitudes to work? For a large minority, ruthless self-interest has become the number one survival strategy.

Nearly 43% say their loyalty is now to themselves and their own careers, not to their employers - to the extent that they don't expect to be with their current employer two years from now. Downshifting fantasies and escape scenarios are widespread: half would consider trading income for more time, and 46% say they would switch jobs tomorrow in exchange for a better quality of life.

The new vocabulary of flexible, people-friendly initiatives isn't helping much either. Managers view it as purely that - vocabulary - with 68% believing that 'presentee-ism' dominates the culture of work. That number rises to 79% among working mothers.

The portrait of a worn-out, burnt-out workforce isn't exactly news. In recent years, the impact of corporate downsizing, increasing competition and the shift to a knowledge- and service-based economy have been the meat and gravy of debates and analyses ranging from newspaper editorials to industry seminars. What is striking about these survey results is the degree to which work pressure is now affecting the quality of managers' lives, relationships and health, and the lack of any tangible signs of support from employers. Has work changed so much that it is becoming unbearably stressful? Or, given that the demands of work and life have always conflicted, is it we who have changed? Are our expectations and sense of entitlement now putting us under pressure?

The answers lie in the social and economic changes that began in the 1980s but which are now having a profound effect on both our expectations and experience of work. That much-documented development the Female Factor has undeniably had the most significant impact on awareness of work/life issues. The rise of the two-career couple, working mothers and the equal presence of women in the workforce - aspects we tend to take for granted even though they have been with us to this degree for only 10 or15 years - have all created a fundamental change in the dialogue between employer and employee.

At the younger end of the scale, there is a new generation of graduates and management trainees who are the children of working mothers, which has affected their sense of work/life issues and family responsibility.

Other surveys have shown that, for these young managers (of both genders), equality and flexibility are not privileged dispensations but standard requirements.

If women kick-started this agenda, it's no wonder. They are still the ones who report feeling under most pressure, both at work and at home.

All the women who replied to our survey claimed to feel more awkward than the male respondents when asking for time off work for personal reasons.

This was particularly true of parents. A third of mothers feel uncomfortable asking for time off to care for a sick child, compared with a fifth of fathers. A third of mothers also said they didn't like attending work events in the evening, compared with a quarter of their male counterparts.

And women still put a higher value on quality of life than men, with half the women saying they would trade money for more time, compared with a quarter of the men. Similarly, a third of women would accept less money in exchange for a more supportive culture at work. Only one in five men would do the same.

It was notable that we had a far higher number of female respondents this year: a quarter of the total, compared with just a sixth last year.

And the age factor - an older generation of women having more to complain about than the younger - doesn't apply, as a third of the women taking part were under 35 and more than half under 40, compared with only three in 10 of the men.

Of course, most surveys contain contradictions, and this one was no exception.

Although women struggle harder to spend more time at home, they aren't necessarily enjoying it when they get there. More than 40% of women admit that there are times when they see their work as a welcome escape from home, whereas only 33% of men said they felt the same. In the case of working mothers, that number soars to nearly 63%, compared with 38% of fathers and a third of all respondents.

It is working parents who are most likely to see work as a refuge, even though less than a third of them feel they have enough time with their children. These figures show that mothers are not sticking with their careers purely out of economic necessity. For a majority, work provides real satisfaction and reward. It's not what they do that's the problem - it's the way they're having to do it.

Unfortunately, the Female Factor has led to too many organisations regarding work/life matters as 'women's issues', thereby marginalising them and creating little ghettos of flexible workers and 'proper' employees. Our survey points to a backlash against family-friendly employment policies, with over half of those taking part agreeing that child-free staff can become resentful about such policies. Discrimination against parents is a reality, even when the recruiters are parents themselves. A third admit that they either discriminate or cannot go so far as to say they don't.

As the debate matures, the issue is moving out of the ghetto and into the mainstream. Family-friendly is being replaced by life-friendly as we acknowledge that, for some people, playing the clarinet or perfecting their golf swing is as legitimate a reason for leaving work on time as having a couple of kids. Parents don't want to feel stigmatised by changing their working hours or patterns, and their childless co-workers don't want to feel resentful that they have to take up the slack. It's clear that flexibility will be viable only when it is available to anyone who can demonstrate that they can take advantage of it and not compromise their responsibilities at work. More than 43% of respondents say they would work more effectively if they could work more flexibly.

Increased competition and high employment - with the attendant talent wars - are forcing many organisations to look for new ways to boost morale and improve recruitment and retention at a time when the legacy of downshifting and de-layering is leaving many managers physically and mentally exhausted. Half the men we surveyed and 65% of the women claim that their work leaves them drained of energy, unable to do much outside work. And 41% say they rarely get enough sleep, describing it as 'the new luxury'. Flexible working patterns might help restore some balance to their lives, but it's hard to see how anything less than a reduction in workload can ease the exhaustion many managers report.

Where do we go from here? The issues raised by this survey are important, but they aren't all new. We can do the maths: a stressed-out, exhausted and unhappy workforce is ultimately one that is unreliable and underperforming.

Motivation, commitment and loyalty can all be bought by well-rewarded, stimulating work in which individual circumstances are accommodated.

Many companies are now struggling to implement new employment policies to give their staff more control over their lives. So why aren't they working? To begin with, it's too early to say that the current initiatives to relieve employee stress aren't having an effect. Our respondents expressed cynicism about flexible working, even where it exists, but we have to accept that the kind of changes most employees are looking for can't happen overnight.

We can take heart that the very phrase 'work/life balance', which until a few years ago was rarely heard outside the most enlightened human resources departments or new-age business guides, is now part of the corporate vocabulary.

With the Government firmly committed to the principles of people-friendly working, and with technology making the principles more practical, the idea, at least, has become established. It is even likely that its widespread acceptance is a reason for higher levels of dissatisfaction among respondents.

The work/life balance is no longer a whispered taboo, or just an individual's personal problem to be sorted out. It's something we all want, and feel entitled to claim.

Secondly, if the new employment policies are going to make a real difference, the big idea of flexible working needs to get bigger. Rearranging work schedules won't be enough for the 40% of sleep-deprived managers who answered our survey. Flexible working in its current form is seen by a majority as little more than lip-service. And where it is granted as a favour, and then only to some employees (typically mothers), it isn't working for anyone. In every other area of business strategy development, the best companies are looking for the most radical change. But in this area we're still thinking deep inside the box. Flexible working grafted onto a company's current culture rarely helps any but a few individuals. We need wider, more radical solutions.

We concluded the survey by asking what single thing would change people's lives. In spite of quite passionately expressed unhappiness at the quality of their lives, and a growing number of managers willing to make the ultimate trade-off between money and time, the factor of 'more money' still topped the list for most people. However, it is worth noting that in many cases the answer of more money was for quality-of-life reasons - enough money, for example, for a partner to give up work, or to finance a new direction, rather than simply upgrading to a more luxurious lifestyle.

Money was closely followed by - and inextricably linked to - issues of time and work/life balance. 'A more supportive culture at work' was number three, far ahead of achieving more recognition at work, which ranked eighth.

That was the most significant shift in this year's survey compared with the previous two years. Although earlier respondents raised similar issues, they were countered with declarations of commitment to and satisfaction with many aspects of work. This year, those aspects are still there but decidedly more muted.

We billed this as a survey about choices - the ones we make about our careers, our salaries, our private lives and our families. On paper, we have far more of these choices than any generation in history. But in reality - as these results make plain - a wider menu of options doesn't equate to the same increase in genuine choice. For a significant and growing minority, there is a danger that 'Your money or your life?' is becoming a question they might have to answer literally. And what kind of choice is that?

IFTIKHAR AHMED, 21

Trainee, HSBC Bank; married, no children.

'I've recently graduated from the University of Central Lancashire with a BA in Management and Social Policy. I've done good and relevant work experience for the past two years at HSBC, but it's really hard getting a foot on the ladder. I'm going through the process of applying for graduate programmes now and, in spite of my experience, I'm finding it tough. Employers all want the same people: the small percentage who went to Oxbridge or LSE, the academic elite - which is very short-sighted.

My generation has grown up with insecurity and pressure, and we just take it in our stride. We're more flexible and bigger risk-takers. The older generation invested everything in one company, so it hit them hard if they lost their jobs and they were more scared to rock the boat. We move around more and we don't expect to be anywhere for 30 years.

I invest in myself and my own career. People with good qualifications and a proven track record will always be OK. It's crucial that parents spend time with their children. Ideally, I'll run my own company one day and sort out my own working structure and balance.'

HOW TO BE A FLEX EXEC

FOR INDIVIDUALS

Organisations could do more to help, but we all need to accept personal responsibility for getting our lives back. Be honest about your needs and priorities, professional and personal. For example, you probably can't work three days a week and stay on the fast track. Which do you want more?

FOR SENIOR MANAGERS

It can be hard to know how big an issue work/life balance is in your organisation - managers are notoriously shy about expressing a desire for more flexibility for fear of being seen as uncommitted. Anonymous surveys are a good way to take the temperature of your workforce. If 15% or more are asking for change, it's time to take action. Follow-up focus groups can help build a fuller picture of problems and potential solutions.

SUE FOX, 43

Quality assurance manager, nursing residential care provider; married, two children (aged 16 and 11)

'My official hours are nine to five but the reality is more like eight to seven, largely because my job involves a lot of travelling round the country. There's no doubt that it's tough for working mothers. My family didn't support me with the kids so I've always had paid childcare, and that's been a strain. But I need to work, and not just for the money.

I have a lot of energy and I'm a very goal-orientated person. I buy into the concept of lifelong learning and development, and I need the fulfilment of work. I'd be a terrible wife and mother if I were at home all the time.

I love the kids but I'd be bored to death.

I get tired and stressed at times but it's made more bearable because my husband fully supports me and I love what I do. I believe I make a difference in people's lives, and that's a great feeling. But it's hard.

The Government could help. I look at what I pay in taxes every month and I still have to fork out for childcare, with no tax break, and I'm outraged.

But if I won the lottery tomorrow, I wouldn't give up work.

VICTORIA ADSHEAD, 25

Marketing manager, hearing aid manufacturer; single, no children

'I work from eight till at least five every day and in addition I'm studying for a Business Management degree three evenings a week, so it's a fairly intense workload. I get tired but I thrive on it. I think a certain amount of stress is a good and motivating thing. If I do get a bit stressed out I just let off steam - go clubbing, listen to music.

I don't want a family. I'm very committed to work and I don't think I could balance the two. I've watched older women trying to do it and it just doesn't work. They're always shattered and there's a whole generation of kids growing up with behaviour problems because they didn't have a full-time parent at home. If you decide to have children, you should make the commitment that at least one parent stays at home with them. I'm old-fashioned like that.

Flexible working is tricky. I don't think it's fair that there should be one set of rules for parents and another for everyone else. There's the classic situation where non-parents can never go on holiday in August because parents are given the priority to have time off with their children.

I'm very ambitious. I think I developed a strong work ethic at school, where you were made to feel you should want to achieve in life. I wanted to be prime minister when I was younger, but now I might settle for being an MD.'

FOR INDIVIDUALS

Don't let your workload become unbearable. If you are asked to take on important extra work, you need to choose something else to offload or put on the back burner.

A lot of business books advise you to ask your boss which projects he wants you to prioritise - don't. It's just delegating responsibility upwards and adding to your manager's problems. Make a decision yourself and keep everyone informed.

FOR SENIOR MANAGERS

Get pro-active. It shouldn't have taken this survey to alert you to the grassroots desire for newer and more flexible ways to work. Don't wait for a mass of resignations or sick notes before you start reading the writing on the wall.

Revisit your organisation's definitions of 'flexible' - it doesn't have to be synonymous with part-time.

CLIFFORD FERGUSON, 51

Partner, The Pace Partnership; married, one child (aged 12)

'I work six days a week, officially from about eight until six, but there are lots of dinners and evenings out. I could easily do seven days, but Sunday is reserved as a family day. I spend a lot of my time out with clients but my office is at home, so work can easily eat into my whole life if I let it. I like my work but I would like it more if there was less of it. Most people I meet have 130% of a job, but that doesn't make it any easier. I think we all have to start being more open and honest about just how tough and exhausting modern workloads are.

There's still a big macho culture in business. If you complain, there is this little voice saying: 'You just couldn't hack it.' It's beginning to have a destabilising effect. I have to retire at 60 and I'll relish the time for myself, but, in spite of feeling exhausted by my workload, I don't want to not work.'

FOR INDIVIDUALS

Understand that flexible working doesn't mean telling your boss when you are available. It means a way of working driven by individual needs and circumstances combined with your professional responsibilities and commitments and the needs and circumstances of your organisation. In other words, it only works when it works both ways.

Flexible working doesn't have to mean reduced hours or salary. You may work four long days and one short one, or prefer to work later into the night and keep mornings free.

FOR SENIOR MANAGERS

Reclaim the idea from the ghetto of mothers' issues.

Consider a pilot scheme with clearly identified and measurable criteria for success.

If you want to change the culture, encourage at least some senior and high-profile staff to work flexibly.

With thanks to David Knight, Erskine Management Consultancy.

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