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Work life Balance an overview

A balanced life is one where we spread our energy and effort - emotional, intellectual, imaginative, spiritual and physical between key areas of importance. The neglect of one or more areas, or anchor points, may threaten the vitality of the whole.

Hobbies/ Interests

Future Plans/ Projects

Religious/Spiritual Philosophical Concerns


Friends & colleagues

Job Self Care Sport/Exercise Community Activities

Family, Relationships

The term work-life Balance was first coined in 1986 in reaction to the unhealthy choices that many Americans were making in favour of the work place, as they opted to neglect family, friends and leisure activities in the pursuit of corporate goals. Much of the following derives from newspaper articles, internet items and from Madeleine Buntings excellent review of this topic in her recent book Willing Slaves How the Overwork Culture in Ruling our Lives (Harper Collins, 2004). The facts are easy to come by and they make startling reading: Americans in full-time employment increased their weekly average hours of work between 1977 and 1997 by 3.5 hours, taking it to 47.1 hours. In a study of UK workplace managers by Wheatley (2000) 65% said work was damaging their health and 77% admitted that it affected their relationship with their children. The Office of National statistics (ONS) found that most couples spend more time apart than together, with most of the time that they do share spent watching television. Based on 21,000 diaries, the ONS discovered that the average British couple spends just 15 minutes a day enjoying a social life with each other (Independent, 16th July 2004). What is going on and what can we do about this? The work place. Over the past twenty-five years there has been a significant intensification of work, driven in part by information technology, by an increasing vulnerability to competition and by the deregulation of the workplace. Trust, long-term loyalty and a sense of corporate community have been eroded by a performance culture that expects more and more and offers little security in return. One in five British workers now report that they have been affected by stress and half a million people a year report stress levels that are making them ill (Health & Safety Executive [HSE] 3rd July 2002 and 11th October 2002). Britains full-time workers put in the
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longest hours in Europe at 43.6 a week, well ahead of the EU average of 40.3 (Eurostat figures, cited in About Time. A New Agenda for Shaping Working Hours, TUC, London, 2002). Yet it remains the case that, once committed to long hours of work, its hard to envisage a different schedule. In the Populus poll conducted for the Times (November 4th to 7th 2004) 78% stated that they would not choose to work fewer hours for less money with 52% saying they could not afford it. And yet it didnt have to be like this. A hundred years ago the pundits were forecasting that technology would not only do away with household chores but provide us with unlimited leisure We have chosen a different course, egged on by a consumerist culture and a political will that has elevated the work ethic to unprecedented heights and thereby reinforced the low value and worth attached to parenting (M. Bunting, p. 313). The UK workplace agenda is poised uneasily between an American corporate thrust that drives its workers harder than ever before and a European approach where a variety of political cultures set great importance on the social fabric the welfare of children, the quality of life and the cohesion of communities and families (M. Bunting, p.303). American workers average about ten days of holiday a year, in contrast to Britain (25) and Germany (30). 26% of Americans take no holiday at all. Americans work twelve weeks more a year in total hours than do Europeans, and America is one of five countries that have no statutory maternity leave (Families and Work Institute, New York, 2001). Attempts to modify the workplace, such as the Kellog six-hour day, have thrown up some challenging alternatives, but the juggernaut of American business has chosen to ignore the social benefits. In Europe the Working Time Regulation with its ceiling on a 48-hour working week has been readily implemented, apart from Britain with its opt-out waiver. Many European countries have chosen to have much lower hours: The Netherlands has a 32 hour week for public sector workers; France tried to introduce a 35 hour week under Lionel Jospin and Finland experimented with a 30 hour week in 1996. The Finnish Experiment Between 1996 and 1998 the Finnish state experimented with a 30-hour week. Workers who participated said they enjoyed more time for other activities: 80% said they had more time for rest and relaxation; 75% for spending with family and children; 72% for fitness and exercise; and 68% for housework. Overall, employees who worked fewer hours reported less conflict between work and family responsibilities. Unlike the Scandinavian countries which pursued a humanisation of work agenda with its emphasis on equal opportunity, child care, gender equality and the central role of the family, the UK, with its poor history of industrial relations, has often turned away from this consensual approach to the dubious merits of party political factionalism. The result is that the British worker lags behind his European counterpart in achieving a more viable work-life balance: His hours are longer: an average of 8 weeks more a year. There continues to be a marked reluctance to implement family friendly policies: proposals to improve maternity leave rights have met with fierce resistance (Times, 21.09.04). 46% of those working in even the best companies in the UK say that they are exhausted at the end of the days work (M. Bunting,). Family. Successful parenting, the culture of care and selflessness that are part of family life, requires energy, time, patience and a tolerance for mess and confusion a tall order when the working day has proved stressful and long. The key question here is who finds time to care for whom?, for what often happens is that the timeconsuming listening part of relationships gets ditched in favour of quick fixes, and then the unattended get to feel unloved and react accordingly. Families need nurturing, and our responses have to be sufficiently deep and elastic to accommodate the unexpected, not just the scheduled bits that fit in neatly with our jobs. Home. Home making is time-consuming. In the making of a home we create an atmosphere that reflects our sense of place in this world. Like a warm and familiar jumper, the home provides us with an extension of ourselves, a place where we can feel free in our emotions and content to be who we really are. The paradox is that the more we work, the more desperate we are to find such a home with its timeless associations and the less time we have to create it. Homes can so easily become houses, pit stops that provide briefly for sleep, rest and the bare essentials in the intervals between work. Friendships. Its often been said that the art of friendship requires common skills to an uncommon degree: a combination of affection, tolerance and patience as well as a sense of constancy in times of struggle and
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difference. Yet when our work-life balance spirals out of control, often friendships along with exercise are the first things to suffer. In a report entitled Social Trends; British Social Attitudes Survey 30 (HMSO 2000) a significant factor over the past two decades is that we are seeing less of our best friends. Yet, as the extended family gets to be geographically more and more challenged, our friendships become increasingly relevant to our circle of mutual nurture and support. Community. Like family, home and friendships, our local communities depend on our time and energy in order to function effectively, freely and spontaneously. It is in the reciprocal context of its activities that our communal identity can be experienced and enjoyed. Yet if we lose that vital life-work balance then the many activities through which neighbourhood and locality are expressed are marginalised and we are the poorer for that neglect. Hobbies, interests and sporting pursuits derive much of their meaning through our interaction with others. If we fail to address the issues of work-life balance as a society then one of the first casualties will be the richness and diversity of community life.

Nick Halpin PhD The Counseling Service, The University of Dundee.

3 Nick Halpin, PhD. 2004 The Counselling Service, The University of Dundee