National Work Life Week and How Employers can Encourage a Good Work-Life Balance
You might not be aware, but 7th to 11th October is National Work Life Week. It’s an annual initiative created by Working Families, the UK’s work-life balance organisation and it’s intended to be an opportunity for both employers and employees to focus on achieving a good work-life balance.
A poor work-life balance can cause employees to neglect other aspects of their lives; it can have a negative effect on their personal relationships, result in physical and mental health problems, a lack of personal development and a poor home life in general.
A quick Google search will throw up hundreds of articles and lists of top tips advising employees to improve their work-life balance. But it’s important to remember, not every position allows people much scope to implement many of these ideas. If you’re on a zero-hours contract at Sports Direct, are a Junior Doctor or work night shifts in a factory, then it’s probably going to be difficult to try an implement tips such as ‘set your own rules’ and ‘just say no’.
Another problem when discussing work-life balance is that increasingly, more of our time at home – when we should be enjoying the ‘life’ part of the ‘work-life’ balance – can feel like work, as being overwhelmed by ‘life admin’ has become a common complaint. Life admin includes all those everyday tasks which seem to take up so much of our time, such as booking holidays, paying bills, remembering birthday cards, changing energy supplier, organising appointments for the GP, dentist, boiler service, renewing insurance policies, cancelling subscriptions, reclaiming your PPI, etc. Whilst of course there are plenty of exceptions, in most typical heterosexual family units, the majority of this type of life admin seems largely to be done by women and as you might expect, working Mums get the worst deal. Research has shown that 42% of women report feelings of unhappiness with their work-life balance, compared to 29% of men, and this is thought to be a consequence of competing life roles and juggling multiple responsibilities. Also, because so many of these tasks are now done online, it’s even more of our day spent at a computer or looking at our mobile and so it’s probably no surprise that these tasks can sometimes feel like a second job and learn that a recent AAT study found that one in two workers have spent time at work doing ‘life admin’. So, perhaps what we really need to focus on is not just achieving a good work-life balance, but a work-life-life admin life balance and for working women in particular, that’s not something that a few tips from netmums.com is going to be able to fix overnight, although they might be a good way of highlighting where to start. This additional life admin aspect makes getting the balance right in your life that bit more difficult, and it’s something that employers will struggle to make an impact on.
Another issue with such top tips lists is that the emphasis is often on what employees can do to try and improve their situations, whereas it would be better for employers to create a healthy culture in the workplace and be proactive in encouraging a good work-life balance across the whole company.
Bosses should recognise the importance of staff having this work-life balance, as countless studies evidence that long hours do not necessarily equate with high productivity and a recent Mental Health Foundation study demonstrated direct links between long hours and feelings of depression and anxiety. In addition to what is considered an increasingly demanding work culture in the UK, it has been suggested that since the arrival of email on smartphones the average working day has expanded from seven and a half hours to nine and a half hours a day, further raising stress levels. One approach suggested in this article is a four-day working week, intended to balance out working days elongated by electronic and agile working, but there’s currently only so many companies this would be practical and economically viable for.
So, what should employers and HR heads be doing to try and improve this situation for their employees?
Here are some suggestions to consider:
Working Families suggest one of the simplest ways to enable a better work-life balance is to go home on time. They say ‘there is very strong evidence that working long hours reduces decision quality and work performance, as well as squeezing the time for a healthy lifestyle and time with family and friends.’ Share this evidence, encourage your staff to go home on time and make sure that wherever possible, go home on time yourself!
Restrict Working Hours
Encouraging people to go home on time can be part of organisations being strict with working hours. A Project Manager.com article describes how some companies are restricting hours to encourage efficiency rather than spending long hours in the office and others implementing a ‘hard close’ at 7pm, to allow flexibility for overtime but to avoid workers frequently still being at work past 8pm and eventually burning out.
Separate Work and Home Life
Bosses can promote a culture of switching off from work once they’ve gone home by implementing a no work email after 6pm policy for example. Obviously, this is more possible in some industries and jobs than others, but where and when it is viable, it can really help that work-life balance. Try to ensure teams don’t take work worries home with them and if you work from home, it’s a good idea to try and keep your work area distinct and away from the rest of your home so you have some sort of physical separation to aid a mental separation. Setting boundaries with your clients and managing their expectations can aid this, for example making it clear when you give your clients your personal mobile number that it is strictly for emergencies only.
Much as it’s important to encourage keeping home life and work life separate, offering a degree of flexible working can benefit the work-life balance, especially for working parents. It’s an approach that MacKenzie King have embraced, with arrangements being made to allow some working mums to finish at 3pm for the school run and with a provision in place for occasional work-from-home days when practical. Other companies have introduced a scheme that allows employees to work remotely, outside the office for half of each day, which might be at home or at a local coffee shop. This is something that can help people accommodate some life admin appointments without sacrificing much productive work time.
Make sure you work with your HR department to track what holiday employees are taking and actively manage your duty of care to your staff by ensuring they are taking their annual holiday allowance. Again, this is an example of where bosses should lead by example and studies have shown that taking paid leave has a positive effect on productivity, result in less sick days and is the best way to try and ensure employees have sufficient time to relax and get away from the pressures of work, before (we hope!) returning to work rested and more motivated.
Life Outside Work
Working Families underline the importance of recognising that everyone has a life outside work, and that how it ‘can bring vital skills back into the workplace e.g. leading and motivating others, resolving conflict, working to deadlines, prioritising or budget management. Enable staff to demonstrate pride they have in their work by bringing family to work, community or family fun days or a working party to help a local school or community group.’ Some businesses, including Sage, Nationwide and Allianz now offer employees the opportunity to undertake paid corporate volunteering days so they can spend time helping a charity or cause that’s important to them.
There’s clearly not a ‘one size fits all’ solution to helping your employees maintain a great work-life balance. There are many different and sometimes conflicting aspects to consider and juggle, and endless unique circumstances. But, if you recognise its importance and value of a good balance and are committed to making improvements where necessary, talking with your team and engaging with the issues they raise is half the battle. Finally, think about leading by example. Scrutinise your own work-life balance and if it’s not ideal, talk to your family and colleagues about what steps you could take to improve your own situation.
For more ideas and information, you can download the National Work Life Week Toolkit here.