If you’re working in HR, it’s likely that you will see or hear the expression “work/life balance” at least weekly, if not daily. But as employers come to grips with a growing catalogue of new legislation; an impending recruitment cliff with the approach of Brexit, and the nebulous expectations of the millennial generation and their successors, it seems timely to take a harder look at this idea.
I was prompted to start thinking about this as the result of a recent conversation with a bereaved colleague. Seeing her the day after she took a day’s compassionate leave to attend the funeral, I asked if she might prefer to have a few more days’ leave before coming back. They would be, I assured her, fully paid. But she demurred.
Coming to work, she explained, gave her physical and mental distance from her loss. She was working through her grief, and being able to come to work was helping the process.
This put me in mind of a similar conversation I had with another colleague who had been struggling for some time with a fairly serious case of mental illness. Would, I asked, a temporary reduction in hours be helpful to give him more of a run-up to the day’s work or allow him more flexibility around his duties? Again, he declined.
Work gave him a sense of purpose and structure that the rest of his life lacked, and that was a large part of what was causing his illness – or, at least, triggering flare-ups of his symptoms. Coming to work was a relief and the knowledge that others relied on him to be there, doing his job, helped him to manage his condition. A little leeway when it came to sickness absence triggers was all he asked for.
And I’ve had similar conversations with friends returning to work after a career break to raise children, for example, or recovering from a chronic illness.
For these people, work isn’t separate from life. It’s part of life. In fact, their work was key to their overall ability to participate in and enjoy living. And although this became clear through their particular challenges, I think it’s also true from a great many more of us.
The expression “work/life balance” suggests that, when we “work”, we somehow put “life” on hold. But life is never on hold. Life goes on. And if we start from the assumption that work is somehow different to life then we’re setting ourselves up to create the idea that, if life is “good”, then work must, therefore, be “bad”. The negotiating position between employers and employees then becomes a process of establishing how much of someone’s “good” they can be persuaded to sacrifice. Now, certainly, there was a time – and a long time, at that – in which this was exactly the negotiated arrangement between employer and worker. The employee agreed to give up a certain amount of personal freedom in return for money that made the time they did have free more pleasant and comfortable.
But aren’t we past that time, now? Digital communications have long been allowing work to infiltrate not-work and, thanks to social media, vice versa. And our manual labour force has, since the invention of the printing press, been finding itself gradually pushed out in favour of automation, with an imminent new wave of automation predicted by most experts today. This will mean a continuing reduction in the number of jobs with a clear, binary state in which one can be clearly identified as being “at work” or “not at work”.
In many cases, employers are already thinking clearly and explicitly about the issue of work/life balance by embracing flexible working, new technologies and volunteering opportunities for employees. Even the “gig economy”, for all the bad press it has taken, has fundamentally been about trying to find a point of balance between the employer’s and employee’s needs in entry-level worker roles that historically never occurred until the level of senior consultants. I think it’s fair to say that a lot of organizations have got it wrong – but they were trying (probably) to get it right. It seems to me that the time is ready for the next step to happen: to think beyond work/life balance to a world where work and life are allowed to blend seamlessly. Sexual identity, we increasingly realize, is a spectrum issue. So is sexuality, autism and mental health. Thanks to physicists at the cutting edge of their disciplines, even reality, it seems, lies upon a spectrum.
So why keep treating work and life as binary issues?
We all know that our best ideas come to us in the shower, or have those nights when we wake up at 3am remembering that thing we urgently need to do for work. Similarly, we all have those days when we just don’t seem to get anything done as we slip from coffee machine to Internet to Candy Crush, struggling to engage ourselves with work.
There’s a well-known study in which New York taxi drivers’ working habits were studied and it was found that they had an internal cut-off point for earnings. On a bad day, they would work long hours in the face of frustration to try to reach their cut-off. On a good day, they would stop work early once they passed it. But if, instead, they worked their long hours on good days and stopped early on the bad ones, they could, the study suggested, increase their earnings by 6%. Could we, perhaps, do the same with productivity? When someone is motivated, inspired and driven, can we give them the tools to capture that productivity, wherever it is happening? And when someone is listless, struggling and bored, can we give them permission to walk away?
It’s no easy task, for sure. But twenty years ago, we’d have said the same thing about flexible working. In the face of so many rising pressures, challenges and threats, it may not be a choice we can’t take.