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Seesaws, swings and roundabouts

The work-life balance debate raises more questions than answers.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

Work-life balance is one of those catchphrases that seems more confused the more it is used.

Were you to try to understand the work-life balance debate from the number of professional organisations, government departments and charities interested in it, from the number of articles, pamphlets, research projects, websites and conferences used to discuss it, and the number of large corporations appearing seriously to address it, you would probably see this as a huge, intractable issue involving a vast number of competing sub-issues and raising problems for which there are no straightforward solutions.

Which would be kind of true. Because while the work-life balance debate often takes the form of discussions about the policies adopted by governments, corporations and institutions, it is an expression of a deeper ambivalence about what we should expect from our work, and from our personal lives. And while this debate seems to be about finding solutions to problems, it tends to raise more questions than answers.

Take, for example, the childcare issue – one of the central concerns of the work-life balance debate. That women work and raise a family is now the norm; that working mothers are full-time professional career-women is becoming increasingly common. Finding affordable, flexible childcare is a headache for most working parents, and often results in a compromise – one partner working part time or staying at home, one or both partners regularly leaving work earlier than previously to get to the nursery on time, short-notice days off work when the child gets ill…. The list goes on.

What’s the solution? Provision of cheaper, more flexible childcare would seem the obvious one. UK organisations such as the Daycare Trust (1) are campaigning for that, and the UK government is addressing the situation. But when childcare is discussed within the framework of the work-life balance, it all seems to get a lot more complicated. Such practical measures as crèche facilities, indeed, are often not discussed at all.

Crèche facilities can physically look after your child – but they can’t solve the fact that you want to be playing with baby rather than sitting in a board meeting. They can’t make your employer more sensitive when you are worrying about a sick child, and they can’t make your staff more understanding of the fact that you want to leave at 5.30 sharp so you can read the bedtime story. Childcare solutions can help you juggle the practical difficulties of work and life, but they can’t help you resolve the emotional tension of being an employee and a parent. Hence the discussion of work-life balance.

At a recent London conference organised by the UK charity Parents at Work (2), representatives from the multinational corporations JPMorgan, BP and GlaxoSmithKline were invited to talk about the way that they managed work-life balance issues. Helena Kennedy QC, chairing the conference, began with the statement ‘parenthood has come out of the closet’, before detailing the battle to make employers and workplaces more flexible and sensitive to the needs of parents.

Carol Lake, managing director at JPMorgan and just returned from maternity leave following the birth of her second child, spoke positively about her experience as a mother at the company: an ‘inclusive, life-friendly environment’. Patti Bellinger, Group Vice President Diversity and Inclusion at BP, described how she refused to turn her mobile phone off in meetings, in case her kids were trying to call her in an emergency.

These small anecdotes reflect the central thrust of the work-life balance debate: which is not the provision of resources to enable people to manage the separate compartments of their lives, but, as Helena Kennedy put it, the acceptance that ‘the private and the public have to open themselves out to each other’. Work should be more like home, and home should be more like work. But why?

A cynic might argue that it is cheaper and easier to encourage greater flexibility and sensitivity among employers than it is to build a proper infrastructure of childcare. But there seems little that is cynical about the work-life balance debate. Corporations’ genuine interest in promoting a culture of life-friendliness is evident in everything from their willingness to sign up to organisations such as ‘Employers for work-life balance’ to their discussions of flexible working, home working, and creative parental leave solutions.

Okay, so the practical implementation of such measures may be patchy, especially for those at the very top or very bottom of their organisations. But employers’ stated concern cannot be dismissed as mere PR fluff.

It seems that today’s employers are genuinely concerned about putting excessive pressure on their staff to commit wholesale to their jobs. The sight of the eager young Turk at his or her desk from 7am to 11pm is as likely to get today’s corporate boss reaching for the workplace counsellor as for the bonus cheque. The notion that a happy worker (or manager) is a productive one has now been widely accepted – and if people don’t have personal lives, how can they possibly be happy? This is a far cry from the aggressive 1980s-style wedded-to-your-job culture, and in many ways, the shift is a positive one. But….

The more employers start trying to be interested in, and sensitive to, their employees’ private time, the more this raises the question about how private this time is – or how professional employers can expect their staff to be at work.

For example, to allow a working mother to work from home occasionally, or to leave work early and make up the time later on that evening, seems like a pragmatic, flexible way of allowing her to make the best of both of her worlds. But eliding the public and private in this way risks creating a situation where a working mother can neither be fully professional, or fully a Mum. The office and the children’s party are whole cultures apart – and if your mobile rings while you’re cutting the cake, how can you focus fully on either one?

BP’s Patti Bellinger alluded to this tension, in describing the benefits and downsides of BP’s creation of a ‘home office’. ‘Yes, I can work from home…but, I can work from home’, she said. The attempt to deal with the emotional balancing act of work and private life – the reluctance to tear yourself away from one to concentrate solely on the other – surely risks exacerbating this very tension, by creating an infrastructure in which you can do both things at once, and yet are consumed with frustration that you are doing neither properly.

It seems that if we are to go beyond daycare provision as a solution to the very real difficulties faced by working parents, we have to be very careful not to create newer, and even more intractable, problems.

The work-life balance debate is not only about childcare. It has quickly spread to encompass other, more general, concerns about employees’ relationship with their workplaces. For example, ‘Singletons are an issue’, said Patti Bellinger. ‘People have the right to manage their families but they also have the right to manage their lives.’

No doubt this concern with childless employees is in part motivated by a desire to avoid the perception that family-friendly policies unfairly shift the work burden on to other employees – a notion that has sparked particular resentment in the USA. But it also reflects the extent of corporations’ concerns with their employees’ personal happiness. Which, when you think about it, is kind of curious.

People have the ‘right to manage their own lives’, true – but what is actually stopping them from doing that? So far as most companies go, it does not seem to be the case that employees are kept chained to their desks as a result of direct incentive or directive on the part of their employer. Rather, what is discussed are broader, more ephemeral cultural factors – ‘long hours culture’, people ‘feeling the need to be seen to be there’, and so on.

No doubt this is a true reflection of many people’s experience – but any solution to these frustrations seems less likely to stem from the employer than from the employees’ own attachment to, and appreciation of, their private lives. To put it bluntly: if you really wanted to be somewhere after work, you would go. If you hang around, it’s because you are not quite sure where else to go, or why. And if that’s the case, what can your employer possibly do about it?

The big question of the work-life balance debate is what role, if any, employers have in managing their employees’ private lives. The intention to create a happier, more well-rounded workforce is a laudable one. But a better – if less fashionable – way of doing this might be to have more separation, not less, between the public and private areas of life.

spiked-issue: Work/life

(1) See the Daycare Trust website

(2) See the Parents at Work website

(3) See the Employers for Work-Life Balance website

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Topics Politics

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