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Home > Culture and Society

Work vs. life: What's their beef?

This week was 'work-life balance' week. "Great", we hear you groan as you sit counting down the hours to beer o' clock, "I thoroughly enjoyed No Smoking Week, Thinly-veiled-advertising-campaign-for-chocolate Week and the forthcoming Days of the Week Week."

9 September 2003

But before you rush off to fine tune your tea-water-milk balance... it should be admitted that so-called 'work-life balance' deserves more discussion than the superficial cant we got from the TV news. Work is a big deal, and not just for people who work such long hours they can't remember how many children they've got. Work is not only a substantial time expenditure; it can also determine our life opportunities and our overall level of happiness.

In a worst-case scenario, a lousy job can ruin your life, as anyone who's ever spent the whole weekend worrying about going back to work on Monday will testify. Yet we rarely debate work in the same way we’d discuss politics or even whether Goodfellas pizzas represent a genuine step forward in frozen pizza technology. (They do. They almost taste like pizza.)

So what's the work-life beef?

This week's campaign was run by The Work-Life Balance Trust, an independent charity sponsored by various bodies including the DfEE, the Granada Group and HSBC, to name but a few, and whose celebrity supporters include Lynda La Plante. (Maybe she's researching a murder mystery set in an independent work-related charity sponsored by the Government and a variety of businesses. Still, it should be better than Killer Net.)

The campaign is basically a response to an issue that has been bobbing around for years - the way we’re working longer hours than ever. The CBI points out that stress costs employers £4bn a year, although whether they’ve factored in the extra productivity caused by making people work harder isn't clear.

Anyway, according to Aaron Ross, chairman of the WLBT, this means we need: 'a unique package from an employer which not only offers financial reward but also respects and accommodates the needs of his or her life outside the workplace.'

The main point of WLBT seems to be that employers should be more aware of the personal demands placed on employees. In an article for BBC Online, Ross also questions the long hours culture itself:

Does success at a job solely equate to the number of hours employees sit at their desk, the amount of telephone calls taken, the amount of e-mails sent or the attainment of certain goals?

Ross goes on to offer tips for employees which include learning to prioritise tasks, learning to say 'no' to time-wasting requests and making sure you have time for the tasks you find "life enhancing" (his phrase).

This is all good advice, but work-life balance problems arise from three rather more fundamental things which can't be changed by any amount of time management. They are:

- Capitalism
- Other people
- Time

Let's take these one at a time.

1) Capitalism is a great economic system - it prunes itself when supply and demand are out of kilter, and, crucially, capitalism avoids the stagnation of socialist economies. But the central purpose of capitalism is to generate profit. This isn't being anti-capitalist, it’s just a fact.

We don't live in a real-life version of the film Wall Street. The reality of modern business is not evil yuppies making 20,000 salt-of-the-earths redundant so they can buy cocaine. But the profit margin remains all-important, so what modern businesses are more likely to do is gradually increase the workload of people who already work for them. The logic is perfect - why employ 10 people to do what eight people could, if they just work harder?

This insidious practice is everywhere: when Bob leaves, he doesn't get replaced, but Kate takes on some of his work, as do Emma and Richard... and so on and so on, until there are just three people left in the office and two are having nervous breakdowns. There are many other versions of increasing workload by stealth, including that most bogus of things: a promotion without a pay rise.

2) Long-hours are often instigated/enforced by people who like to work long hours, whether it’s an ambitious boss or someone who just doesn’t have much of a social life. If you join a company where there’s a culture of late working and never complaining, then what choice do you really have but to work late or automatically be considered a Mr/Mrs Awkward?

3) One big problem of many jobs is that they really do take up a lot of time. Not just the basic 40 hours a week of actual work, but also the travelling and other activities. 50+ hours is typically cited as a typical benchmark of long hours, but add on travel, plus maybe the odd bit of late working or attending a conference, and it’s easy for a 40-hour week to turn into a 50+ hour week.

It's also worth noting that your work time is your most productive time, as anyone who’s ever tried writing a novel in the evening after spending eight hours staring at a monitor will bitterly tell you.

So what's the solution to the work-life problem?

The solution, if there is one, is probably less to do with time management and instead the need for stronger, or at least clearer, employment law. People should not be made to feel they're letting the side down if they work a normal, reasonable number of hours. Nor should they be made to feel guilty for taking time off if their kid’s ill or to attend a funeral (genuine examples). Similarly there should be clearer rules about dysfunctional workplace personalities who make other people’s lives a misery by enforcing long hours.

Most of all, though, we should be able to drop the pretence that jobs provide us with all sorts of wonderful personal rewards that they mostly don't, eg. fulfilment. Instead of having to feign interest, we should be able to say quite openly: "We spend a lot of time at work, time that we can't get back, and time which is quite often devoted to deeply unispiring activities. As such, cut us some slack. Don't pretend the sky will fall in if we leave early on Friday."

And of course there's one simple thing that gets right to the heart of the problem: we need to work shorter hours (unless we choose to do otherwise). But maybe that's too simple. After all, it might involve employing more people.

Life-work balance equals success!

- NB this is a bit scary.


Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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