The UK has been celebrating National Work Life Week for over ten years now; while the US designates the whole of October as work-family month. It’s fair to say that for most people work-life balance has taken an enormous hit this year. Which is why employers must make it a key priority as we figure out ‘new normal’ ways of working.
Employer support for work-life balance has been shown to improve physical and mental wellbeing; along with employee engagement and job performance. Psychologists talk in terms of people’s limited resources (physical, mental and emotional). When these are exhausted we need time for rest and recovery so these can be replenished. We need work-life balance. Unfortunately the subject had already slipped off the corporate agenda in many workplaces; even before the pandemic began. The gradual introduction of a raft of family friendly provisions into UK law led many employers to behave as though the work-life balance issue had been resolved. Nothing was further from the truth.
Work-life balance means different things to men and women and lockdown provided a perfect illustration of this. Around the globe women carry out three times as much unpaid household and caring work as do men. They also take on the bulk of responsibilities for ensuring households run smoothly (commonly referred to as the ‘mental load’). But when it comes to the workplace, the extent of this ‘invisible work’ has yet to be recognised. Working practices continue to be based on the notion of the ‘ideal worker’ able to prioritise work above all else and unencumbered by other life commitments. As a consequence much of the advice and support offered during the pandemic was gender blind. It chose to ignore the dilemma of how to effectively combine work and care in a system that offered no support. That was the reality for many women.
As we edge our way tentatively towards a ‘new normal’, speculation is rife that more employers will be open to offering flexible working arrangements. In reality such offers are rarely supported by formal guidance on how and when to disconnect. This risks the development of #AlwaysOn workplace cultures. Mothers in particular are often so grateful to be allowed a working arrangement that promises to support their work-life balance they willingly blur the boundaries between work and non-work. The result has been women exhausted by the triple shift of work followed by childcare; and followed by more work once children are asleep.
An inclusive approach to work-life balance requires a rethink of working practices; making them fit for our 21st century lives. Specifically it depends upon two key actions from employers.
The first is the establishment of a workplace culture that openly supports work-life balance. One that encourages the development of practical solutions which go beyond stereotyped assumptions. This must be underpinned by an explicit statement of support, along with guidelines for employees and a clear business case for why it is important. In terms of the latter, the two places to look are at supporting mental health (allowing everyone time for rest and recovery) and supporting the progress of women into senior roles (where flexible working has been identified as a proven strategy). In this way support for work-life balance becomes part of the diversity toolkit.
Secondly, employers must embrace the reality that when it comes to balance there is no ‘one size fits all solution’. People’s needs will differ based on both life style and life stage. Treating the management of work-life balance as a competency that can be learned is the solution. In addition managers must be trained in how to support work-life balance for their direct reports; and encouraged to do so (perhaps with the inclusion of a measure in their KPIs). As the working world becomes ever more flexible and the boundaries between work and life continue to be eroded learning to manage one’s work-life balance becomes a key skill for effectiveness in the 21st century workplace.
As we start to plan a post pandemic future for our workplaces we have an opportunity to reshape working practices so they offer more balance and the possibility of more productive jobs. And in a period when the HR focus has been firmly on both wellbeing and inclusion we must acknowledge that supporting work-life balance is the linchpin to achieving both.
Anna Meller, Work Re-Balance Expert at Sustainable Working Ltd