Guest post by Heejung Chung, University of Kent
It’s just been Work-Life Week, when employers and employees are asked to think about how they juggle their working lives and to perhaps try to strike a balance.
In the UK, we’re more likely than others in neighbouring countries to feel that our working lives are at odds with our family lives.
In 2012 respondents across 29 European countries were asked in the European Social Survey: “How satisfied are you with the balance between the time you spend on your paid work and the time you spend on other aspects of your life?” On average, Britons answer just below seven (6.8) out of a scale of 0 (extremely unsatisfied) to 10 (extremely satisfied) – placing them smack in the middle of the countries surveyed.
This relative satisfaction is quite surprising when you take into account how Britons answered other questions relating to work-life balance. In 2010, more than a quarter of UK respondents told the European Social Survey that they often or always worry about work when not working – and a fifth said they felt their jobs prevented them from giving time to their partner or family. Meanwhile almost a third of all people surveyed said they felt too tired after work to enjoy life at home.
Just to put this into perspective, only about one in seven Norwegians said they worried about work when not working and felt that their jobs prevented enjoying things at home, and only one in eight felt their work prevented them from giving time to their families. In other words, Britons are about twice as likely as Norwegians to feel various types of conflict between their work life and family life.
It isn’t just the Norwegians – most of the UK’s Western European neighbours appear to be doing better in striking a balance between work and life.
So why exactly do people feel like their work and family life are in conflict with one another? Of course, people with children – especially young children – are those who are more likely to feel that their jobs are preventing time with their families. They are also more likely to feel that they are not able to give time to other things, including housework, due to the time and energy they spend at work.
The most important factors in explaining why workers feel that their work life and family life, or other aspects of life, at are odds with one another are the number of hours spent at work and the demands at work. But what is also interesting is that it is not just your working hours, but your partner’s working hours that contribute to the amount of conflict you feel.
In other words, if your partner is putting long hours in the office, and you are left to take care of the children and put dinner on the table, you start feeling like your own work may be a bit too much.
Making our jobs work for us
Work-family conflict not only leads to negative outcomes for one’s own mental and physical well-being but it can have a devastating impact on one’s family, and can in turn lead to problems for the company, low productivity and high levels of sickness, absenteeism as well as societal issues such as lower fertility rates or loss of human capital from people leaving the workforce.
If governments and businesses want to solve this problem there are a number of things they can address, including policies to reduce household demands – such as generous childcare provision. The right to request flexible work has also been extended to all workers and can help, but only to an extent and not for some. If general working conditions and the gender division of labour don’t change, the right to flexible working cannot be the sole solution to our problems.
When asked what was important when choosing a job in the 2010 survey, 85% replied that combining work and family responsibilities was important or very important. It is clearly time that these issues are taken much more seriously, with employers and society especially coming up with real solutions.
Heejung Chung receives funding from the ESRC for the project “Working-time flexibiilty and work-life balance” (Grant ref: ES/K009699/1)