Work-life balance is about managing work responsibilities to enable, facilitate and allow adequate time for family, leisure and rest. The exact nature of this social life and where and how to strike the right balance is different for every individual. However, it’s clear that for many employees, being given control over how they structure their time can often facilitate positive work-life balance. Ensuring workers have the chance to switch off increases the likelihood they are more productive when in the workplace, in turn benefiting the employer.
Between 1870 and 1970, working hours approximately halved. The eight-hour working day was won, the school leaving age rose, more people studied, for longer, and retirement was introduced. However, in this increasingly 24/7 global economy, when consumers expect goods and services around the clock, businesses work across time zones and companies have access to the internet, work-life balance is coming under renewed pressure.
In this context, it is increasingly being recognised that work-life balance is important. A study of 7000 middle aged civil servants found that those who worked over 11 hours a day were 67% more likely to develop coronary heart disease compared to their colleagues who worked 8 hours. Poor work-life balance standards across the labour market inhibit those with caring responsibilities - whether children, or aging parents - from participating actively and fully in paid work. In the UK, 41% of workers feel their job sometimes or always prevents them giving enough time to their family . For business, 11.7 million working days are lost due to stress each year. When employees have effective work-life balance, they take fewer sick days and are increasingly loyal to their company and more productive hour by hour.
Facilitating positive work-life balance also makes a company attractive to prospective employees: when looking for a job, 86% of European workers believe that finding a job that allows them to combine work and family is important or very important. When mothers feel they have positive work-life balance they are only half as likely to reduce their hours after having children.
Companies can give the option of flexible working practices to support employees being in control of their own schedules. Compressed hours, where a typical week’s worth of hours are worked over fewer days, are one such solution. When the state of Utah trialled a 4 day 40 hour week for all public employees, 85% reported that they prefered this to a five day week. Companies may also offer job shares where two or more members of staff cover the work of one full time job, term-time only work, and the option to work from home.
However, making these options available to staff is unlikely to be sufficient on its own. Flexible working practices for individuals need to be facilitated by companies so, for example, support for one employee does not result in the overloading of his or her colleagues. Further, the overarching culture within a business is critical. If employees feel guilty about taking up flexible working options, or believe that stigma that they’re not working hard enough may harm their career or relationships with colleagues, they will be less likely to take up work-life balance options.
Beyond day to day flexible options, companies can support their staff by giving extended parental leave, and by offering carers leave. They can also facilitate staff gaining new skills by volunteering during work time, or by giving the option of sabbaticals. Companies can also support parents in the workplace by providing subsidised childcare either on site, or elsewhere. Other provisions to support work-life balance may also include benefits, such as gym membership, cycle to work schemes and sponsorship for learning non-work-related skills, such as funding for evening classes.
When it comes to work-life balance, flexible working practices are not always better practices. Blurring boundaries between work and home can lead to the practice of ‘grazing’ where employees are constantly monitoring their smartphones, answering emails and taking calls in their free time. ‘Grazing’ means that employees’ stress and anxiety levels don’t return to base level during time off. In order to tackle this phenomenon, France introduced its ‘right to disconnect’ law at the start of 2017. French companies with more than 50 employees are now required to negotiate staff’s access to work communications at home. Some companies, including Daimler, have taken this a step further and even automatically delete emails sent to staff who are on holiday.
A more radical alternative is to shorten the working day altogether. Trials in Sweden of 6 hour working days have been successful in decreasing levels of absence amongst nurses. The nurses were also able to organise 85% more activities with elderly residents, and put this increase down to heightened energy levels. Similarly, at Toyota’s service centres in Gothenburg, shifts have been 6 hours long since 2003, because it was found that workers could be more productive in a 6-hour stint than an 8-hour shift - profits have risen by 25%, which the managing director attributes to the change.