There has been a lot of talk about work-life balance in and outside of the
HR community for some time. For some people, it’s an important factor that
businesses need to consider so that they can provide a working environment that
motivates employees. Others see it as just another gimmick made up of
In reality, though, work-life balance is important. Research by Brookman
Solicitors found that 63% of people planned to make changes to improve their
work-life balance in 2018. For some, that included moving to a new job as their
existing one was not able to support them.
Given that recruiting new people is expensive and training them can be
time-consuming, supporting work-life balance remains a strong way to protect
the bottom line of your business.
Working Longer Hours
Research published by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) shows that
11% of British employees regularly work more than 48 hours per week. The number
of employees putting in these long shifts increased more than any other EU
country during the 1990s and 2000s.
According to Rescue Time, 5% of employees start their day before 7 AM and
40% are using their computers after 10 PM. More than a quarter of work is
undertaken by employees outside of standard office hours, with an average of 89
hours of work outside of these hours, per employee, per year. That’s the
equivalent of more than two standard working weeks.
The IES says that managers, professionals, operatives and assembly workers
are all workers that regularly work longer hours.
Organisational cultures that glorify working long hours as a badge of honour
and heavy workloads are some of the biggest reasons why people have to work
longer hours. Some managers are very suspicious of employees that make requests
to work flexibly or from home.
Many still see “working from home” as a euphemism for shirking work, while
other organisations have flexible working schemes that result in employees
taking reductions in pay despite delivering the same amount of work.
Long Hours, Less Work
In 1955 Cyril Northcote Parkinson, a British historian, wrote an article for
The Economist. He started it with the words “work expands to fill the time
available for its completion”, a phrase that later became known as Parkinson’s
This remains the case with working long hours today. According to Rescue
Time, employees are productive for less than three hours a day when using computers
and other devices. Part of this comes from the fact that the average employee
checks their email and instant messaging services every 6 minutes.
Employees also spend some of their work time looking at non-work sites and
apps. According to Business News Daily, employees spend around an hour each day
using their smartphone.
Some choose to play games from sites
like Paddy Power Casino, while others browse social media sites like Instagram and Facebook. Paying bills,
shopping online, and reading the news are all popular activities too.
Based on this information, it’s reasonable to assume that the same amount of work can be achieved in fewer hours. It is widely reported that Germany has the lowest working hours and the most public holidays in all of Europe, despite having the highest levels of productivity. Therefore, a work-life balance is not only possible but beneficial to everyone involved.
Many employees have negative perceptions of HR departments, with older
employees having the most negative feelings. This is particularly true when
employees perceive HR as seeing employees as a “cost” rather than an
“asset”, which has been found by Cornell University to lead to a decline in
employee satisfaction and commitment.
Actions that can lead to this perception include:
- Intense scrutiny of how long employees spend on each task
- Close monitoring of punctuality and attendance, strict enforcement of docking pay, and lack of flexibility for extenuating circumstances (such as illness or bereavement)
- Close monitoring of employee computer and internet usage
- Any monitoring of toilet breaks
- Low holiday allowances
- Strict rules about mobile phone use that isn’t for security or data protection purposes
These can lead to a poor work-life balance. Employees that are left
demotivated by it will become less productive, which could mean they have to
work longer to achieve the same results.
Instead, HR policies should be set that focus on an employee’s output rather
than the time they spend on delivering their work.
By defining responsibilities and providing measurable targets, employees and
employers can objectively and constructively monitor success. If a piece of
work is delivered on time and meeting its requirements, then the employee has
succeeded, regardless of the number of hours it took to achieve it.
Enforcing Digital Downtime
Since we can check our emails from our smartphones at any time of the day,
communication can often creep into personal time. This promotes an “always-on”
work culture, eroding the boundaries between work time and non-work time.
The same goes for lunch breaks, where employees eat at their desks to get
more work done. This gives their minds no time to switch off and can have
negative effects in the longer term.
Switching off access to emails during non-work hours and encouraging
employees to have lunch away from their desks can deliver significant
Allow and Promote Flexible Working
If you are trusting your employees to deliver their work on their terms,
then when and where they work is not important. Allowing flexible working can
help employees fit their personal lives around work.
This frees up employees to stop worrying about doing things like
visiting the dentist or working from home while their car is in the
It’s not just about putting the mechanisms in place to allow for flexible
working, it needs to be actively encouraged. The IES listed an employee’s lack
of awareness of flexible arrangements was one of the biggest barriers to reducing
long work hours. A recent example of this is Twitter, which announced a new
policy to allow employees to “work from home forever”.
A strong work-life balance is important for establishing productive
workplace cultures. As has been shown in Germany and by Parkinson’s
Law, an increase in hours worked does not necessarily correlate with an
increase in work done.
Therefore, businesses should use their HR policies to facilitate and promote
flexible working systems that empower employees to deliver the work required of
them on their own terms.
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