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The ultimate balancing act

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What does work/life balance mean?

Prior to Generation X, people had a working life and a life outside of work. Work was valued, unemployment a real fear, and people often stayed in the same job for life or with the same employer for many years. Working hours were fairly fixed; family lives were different, so there was no real conflict or balancing required with work and having a life outside of it.

Then privatisation, plus a cultural change in some industries, meant working longer hours could make more money. The ‘80s saw the advent of being first into work and last out; women forging careers; and technology entering the workplace. And it also saw the first cases of burnout. And while Generation X watched this happening to their parents or older siblings, subconsciously the work/life balance phenomenon was born. 

Despite awareness of the requirements for a good work/life balance being around for more almost four decades, it has become a buzzword again in recent years, thanks to the rise of the Millennial workforce and their very different attitude to careers and work in general. The Millennials influence is timely – a recent report stated that around 6.5m UK employees, which is approximately 30% of the working population, describe themselves as unhappy at work. A survey by the Mental Health Foundation also found that when working long hours, 27% of employees feel depressed, 34% feel anxious and 58% feel irritable. 

What can employers do?

Good employers have been taking the work/life balance seriously for a while now and the best of them deploy it from the top down. When senior management team take a break away from their desks for lunch, employees don’t feel obliged to stay at theirs. Desk time is just the tip of the iceberg – there are numerous supportive policies that employers offer, though it’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and many benefits or flexible arrangements need to be tailored to the individual employee. Some of the most common policies include:

  • Flexible working (e.g. compressed hours, job sharing, remote working)
  • Paid time off policies and paid time away for voluntary or charity work
  • Supporting employees who have caring duties
  • Sensible communication expectations (pressure to respond to emails is one of the major culprits of an imbalance, with 43% of employees reading or sending work-related emails outside of the office).
  • Mental and physical health promoting activities such as gym membership, cycle to work schemes, lunchtime yoga etc.
  • Health assessments at work or allowing medical appointments around work and other commitments

What’s in it for employers?

Employees with a good work/life balance are more efficient, productive and motivated, which leads to higher retention rates and therefore a better employer brand for future recruitment. With an enhanced reputation for a positive work/life balance, an employer becomes desirable among the better candidates. Avoiding burnout and poor mental well being among employees not only has the knock-on effect on productivity, but also reduces the number of working days lost due to ill health – studies currently show that almost half of all sick days are stress related.

What does your company do to promote and enable a positive work/life balance? We’d love to hear your thoughts.