Work-life: in balance – or imbalance?
Know the factors that are important for your quality of life
The term “work-life balance” (WLB) is a relatively recent inclusion in English phraseology, and its origins no doubt reflect the changing mindset of people in the technological age. The term “life balance” invokes soothing images of a world in which we have both the time and energy to enjoy the best life has to offer.
Most of us also know what it feels like to have a life that is out of balance. For many, the feeling has become endemic, an accepted aspect of their existence. As the Eagles opined in 1976, “life in the fast lane – surely makes you lose your mind¹.”
Who gets it right?
The OECD publishes data annually on the work life balance of its member states as part of its “Better Life Index” which includes factors such as income, education, health, life satisfaction and work-life balance.
A central aspect of work-life balance is the amount of time a person spends at work. Evidence suggests that long work hours can impair personal health, compromise safety and increase stress. One in every 8 employees in the OECD works 50 hours or more per week².
Turkey has highest proportion of people working very long hours, with 34%, followed by Mexico with nearly 30%. Both Australia and the UK sit at around 13%. Overall, more men work very long hours; the percentage of male employees working very long hours across OECD countries is over 16%, compared with nearly 8% for women.
Northern European countries fare well with regard to long working hours, with the Netherlands and Sweden having only 1 in every 100-200 employees working over 50 hours per week, compared to 1 in 3 for Mexico and Turkey. Clearly working hours don’t seem to correlate with the economic performance – the Netherlands and Sweden rank 23rd and 26th in the world for GDP per capita, while Mexico and Turkey rank 91st and 76th respectively.
When the OECD analysed the Better Life Index in realtion to socioeconomic status (SES), the differences between high and low SES were stark.
One might think those on high incomes in high powered jobs are working the long hours and living the nightmare of poor work life balance – not so. In every country studied, there was a substantial gap between upper and lower SES groups. The disparity was highest in the US, Brtiain and Germany when the index was 25% lower in the poorest decile compared to the wealthiest decile. For Poland and Japan, the difference between upper and lower deciles was half that.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to be!
Back in the seventies there was a prevailing mindset that the technological age would deliver unprecedented amounts of leisure time due to computers and to the labour-saving devices that would make life easier and less stressful. Much of this additional leisure time would be spent participating in the type of "R&R" activities that made qualifications in recreation related industries a valuable commodity. Just what was required of a community that was busy filling idle time with activities, aerobics, bush walks, origami or bungee jumping … we now know we were conned!
Prior to 1850, the working day went from 5AM to 7PM (roughly sunrise to sunset in summer for the most populated regions of the world). A 50-hour working week was the norm in the late 1800s. The 40-hour week became the norm in the industrialised world in the 1940s/1950s.
Ironically, the eight-hour day was predicated on the assumption of eight hours’ work, eight hours’ recreation and eight hours’ rest (wouldn't you love 8 hours’ recreation per day!). Expectation was, that by the turn of the century (which has subsequently arrived), we'd be down to 35 hours per week and on our way to the three-day weekend!
What happened? We seem to be heading back the other way! Not only are many people working longer hours, but commuting time has increased substantially, smaller and less extended families have eroded the support base that was common in the past, and the number of dual income families has skyrocketed – more women work. This all serves to increase the demands of everyday life. Now, more than ever, we need to manage our lives more effectively so as not to propagate a legacy of unfulfilled expectations and a quality of life which is not enjoyable.
When the industrial age began, people had to work six days per week to earn sufficient income to pay for food and shelter. These days, those obligations are met by most workers by Tuesday afternoon!
Quality of Life
We are now at the crossroads. Do we continue to strive under the mandate of "do more, better, quicker with less", or do we target quality of life and life balance? If we opt for the latter, will we be bitter about what we are giving up (money and all that it can buy- position, opportunity for advancement)?
Jeremy Bentham was the founder of utilitarianism, the philosophy that proclaimed that the greatest happiness of the greatest number (the “felicific calculus”) was the only scientific measure of good and bad, right and wrong. In short - the only worthy goal in life!
In the medical and scientific literature, “quality of life” assessment was almost unknown 25 years ago. Back then, if a medication lowered blood pressure, it didn’t concern most physicians if it killed your sex life or resulted in chronic constipation and headaches. Quality of life, however, has now become an integral variable in outcomes of clinical research, with over 1000 new articles appearing each year that are indexed under “quality of life”. Is this a tinge of retrospective guilt by scientists who neglected to take such issues into account over the course of the previous century? Or is it simply a reflection of changing community attitudes that saw us gradually drift away from the ideal of “felicific calculus” over the course of the industrial revolution? Or is it something new, an artefact of a more mature society that has finally worked out what is important for its members? Suspect the latter.
For many years the United Nations gauged quality of life from data on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita in each country of the world, the theory being that the greater the income of a country, the better off its citizens will be. It is difficult to reconcile the fact that a country like Japan, which has a high GDP per capita, but also has a high cost of living, transport chaos, a six-day working week, pollution, political turmoil, chronic overpopulation, high levels of personal debt and unaffordable housing, could be rated significantly higher than a less populated country with a 38-hour working week, plenty of leisure time to spend with family and friends, clean air and no traffic jams (the land of OZ?). Whilst there has always been the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor, as well as the upper and the lower classes, quality of life is not the exclusive domain of the haves, the rich or the upper class. So why do we propose an economic indicator to gauge quality of life?
But I'm wealthy… and sad!
Many economists have moved on from indicators like GDP as a measure of success. New metrics such as the OECD’s “Better Life Index” and the “Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI)” recognise that we do not live in an economy, we live in a society, and that the society itself is embedded in a natural environment.
The problem with GDP is that it simply tallies monetary transactions on an annual basis. If petrol use goes up, GDP goes up with it as people spend more (even if it is on credit!). But GPI will go down as it factors in the depletion of non-renewable energy sources, rising atmospheric pollution, increased traffic congestion and accidents, as well as the contribution to climate change.
GPI also factors in costs associated with crime, underemployment, family breakdown and loss of farmlands/forests. There is an obvious analogy with this macroscopic view of the world economy and our personal lives. We can sometimes fall into the trap of judging our lives and ourselves by our income and assets (our personal GDP). What we really need is a personal GPI, which accounts for things like quality leisure time, constructive relationships and good health – something which truly reflects our quality of life.
So, what is “Quality of Life” and what contributes to it?
One problem is defining quality of life. No single definition could be universally acceptable because we all have different values and beliefs about what is important in life. Is it the ‘quality’ of your closest relationships, your physical health, your emotional wellbeing or your income? Do you factor in job satisfaction, adequacy of housing or degree of religious fulfillment? A world leader in this field, Irish researcher Kieran O'Boyle said, "Quality of life is what a person says it is”.
People readily identify a number of factors that contribute to their quality of life. These generally include factors such as:
- Physical and mental health
- Social life
- Knowledge and learning
- Values and beliefs
Issues likely to effect quality of life in each of the life areas. The areas are broad and often complex with multiple contributing factors. The most common elements of each area are listed below. It’s worth reviewing how many apply to you, and what impact they are having on your personal quality of life.
- Excess weight
- Lack of exercise/fitness
- Lack of energy/sleep
- Elevated blood pressure/cholesterol
- Chronic injury/illness
- Chronic pain (back/neck, etc.)
- Excess smoking/alcohol
- Dissatisfaction with body part/shape
- Junk food consumption
Worry over trivialities and “what ifs”
Lack of time for self
Poor relationships at work/home
Inability to deal with stress/pressure
Unrealistic expectations of self/others
High demand/low control environment
Low level of autonomy
Uncertainty about future
- Lack of stimulation
- Too much/too little responsibility
- Poor communication with peers/subordinates/superiors
- Little opportunity for advancement
- Unrealistic expectations
- Responsibility/authority mismatch
- Uncertainty about future
- Inadequate remuneration
- Toxic work environment
- Insufficient time with partner/kids
- Dysfunctional relationships
- Delinquent/difficult child
- Illness of partner/child
- Sexual difficulties
- Pregnancy/new family member
- Problems with school
- Problems with parents/in-laws
- Need a holiday
- Too much/too little
- Relationship hassles
- Lack of a close personal friend(s)
- Social isolation/loneliness
- Lack of community involvement
- No friends with similar interests
- Lack of enjoyment of social occasions
- Need for new and interesting relationships
- Under stimulated in social setting
- Too tired to enjoy social outings fully
- No time to pursue new learning goals
- Inadequate learning for work aspirations
- Falling behind in computer/IT skills
- No time to cover basic reading needs newspapers/journals/newsletters
- Don’t know where to acquire skills
- Poor interpersonal/communication skills
- Lack of diversity in knowledge base
- Can’t afford to participate in training
- Unsure if reward justifies time/effort
- Inadequate remuneration
- Loss of income
- Big mortgage
- Lack of (sufficient) superannuation
- Behind in tax return
- Credit card debt/Overspending
- Gambling losses
- Child support payments
- Low level of savings
Values and Beliefs
- Honesty/integrity issues
- Conflicting priorities (work/family/health)
- Differing values to partner/spouse
- Religious/spiritual/cultural issues
- Differing values to offspring
- Questioning big issues (faith, meaning of life, capitalist society, etc.)
The SHAPE Survey looks at many aspects of work-life balance which helps organisations understand both the issues and the consequences, which in turn help determine the best course of action to resolve issues that are having a negative impact.
¹Walsh, Joe. 1976. Life In The Fast Lane. Vinyl Record. Asylum.
²"OECD Better Life Index". 2013. Oecdbetterlifeindex.Org.