Managing Mayhem: Work‐life Balance in New Zealand

Ruth Mortimer (New Zealand Centre for Women and Leadership,Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand)

Gender in Management

ISSN: 1754-2413

Article publication date: 13 June 2008



Mortimer, R. (2008), "Managing Mayhem: Work‐life Balance in New Zealand", Gender in Management, Vol. 23 No. 4, pp. 291-294.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Managing Mayhem is an apt title for a book that sifts through the tricky issues of balancing work and non‐work activities. The term “work‐life balance” suggests a time for work and a time for one's personal pursuits while achieving a desirable balance between the two. Drawing upon contemporary New Zealand research, the contributing writers to Managing Mayhem challenge the idea of work‐life balance, highlighting the popular assumptions behind the term. Not everyone who wants to, “works”, just as not everyone who wants to “plays”. As far as achieving a reasonable measure of both, for many New Zealanders, this is merely a pipedream. For some of us it may be irrelevant, for others it is just not attainable.

Based on the concern that many individuals are not enjoying the quality of life that comes from a satisfactory balance, chapters in the book report on the experiences of men, custodial grandparents, unpaid workers, Māori, Pasifika, people in the Chinese community, women in lifestyle businesses, small‐business operators, and artists. And this diversity is a strength of the book. By investigating a broad range of people within the community, the authors manage to shake up one's ideas of what constitutes work and non‐work.

Another strength is that although Managing Mayhem is a scholarly publication, it is accessible to a wide audience. Policy‐makers, practitioners, and researchers would find practical application from the different areas covered in its chapters, but anyone who has even the slightest interest in work‐life issues is likely to appreciate the book's readability and the insights it gives into different people's realities.

In the first chapter, Mervyl McPherson and Philippa Reed overview the development of work‐life balance within the New Zealand context, noting that the equal employment opportunities (EEO) Trust has been instrumental in promoting the issue. Work‐life balance is not just an issue for employees, but also for employers. The Trust has established the EEO Trust Work & Life Awards which recognises employers who initiate work‐life practices in their organisations.

Chapter 2 is written by Judy McGregor, the EEO Commissioner. She raises the fact that men are under‐represented in research relating to flexible work and balance issues. Preferring to use the term “quality flexible work”, McGregor notes that the Human Rights Commission has tried to move the focus from workers who have young children, to a broader range of workers. She outlines the issues facing male workers. For example, the stigma often experienced by men who are primary caregivers, the pressures facing mature‐aged men such as sense of identity, fatigue, and stress, along with the pressures many men are under when they strive to be good fathers and providers.

Marilyn Waring highlights the absence of rights for unpaid workers in Chapter 3. I was surprised to learn that 70 per cent of women's work is unpaid in New Zealand, though not surprised to find that unpaid women's work makes a significant contribution to the country's economy. However, I was alarmed to read that many children are working long hours in unpaid work, often in a caregiving role. Many of these children are missing out on the chance to have fun, and to further their education.

Work‐life balance: Rhetoric or “reality”? is the title of Chapter 4. Ann Dupuis critiques the term “work‐life balance” describing it as “a very slippery concept indeed” (p. 70). She notes that it is not a concept that is applicable to all workers, that work and life is a “false binary”, and not so easily divided. In her discussion of non‐standard work, the author explains that there are individuals who find the boundaries between work and non‐work very blurred. For example, non‐standard workers may include shift, roster, and part‐time work Non‐standard employment may involve casual, fixed‐term and on‐call work. For many of these “non‐standard workers” the concept of a work‐life balance is irrelevant. Any concept of balance or ability to achieve it is outside their control.

In the next chapter, Fiona Te Momo looks at work life for Māori academic women. She notes the increase in cultural responsibilities for this group, particularly when they work with people who have a weak understanding of te reo Māori (language), and customs. Pressure is often placed on Māori staff to fulfil particular cultural roles, such as teaching waiata (songs) and guiding people on cultural issues. Often these cultural responsibilities encroach upon the individual's work and personal time. She states:

My Māori women colleagues frequently describe being so overcome with work responsibilities that they are unable to balance their lives. In this way we are effectively silenced, as we don't have time to be rebellious or critical. For the Māori women encountering this type of work life they continue to place one foot behind the other to move forward in order to survive in academic life” (p. 102).

Chapter 6 reports on relevant findings from a qualitative study commissioned by the Ministry of Women's Affairs, on Pasifika women's economic well‐being. Ana Hau‘alofa‘ia Koloto tells us that the key issues relating to work‐life balance for these women are centred on “the context of their membership of and roles in the family, extended family, church and community, and their commitments to employment, education and training” (p. 121). Most of the participants in the study “were so committed to their families’ needs that achieving balance in their own lives was difficult, a low priority or had not even been considered” (p. 121).

A further distinctive culture is examined in Chapter 7 which explains the experiences of professional Chinese women in New Zealand. Vivien Wei talks about her own background of being raised in a traditional Chinese family, then discusses the situation of Chinese women immigrants. She notes that even though the 2001 census shows that 6.4 per cent of the population identified themselves as having Asian ethnicity, Asian people have not featured in policies, such as the Work‐Life Balance Project report by the Department of Labour. While New Zealand has adopted inclusive practices relating to Māori and Pasifika, more attention is needed to ensure Asian people are not marginalised. Wei reports that Chinese women have a strong commitment to their families and communities, but “Chinese women put themselves last on the list, resulting in sacrifice and risk” (p. 137).

Issues facing full‐time fathers are discussed by Nicholas Kildare who talks about his own experience of full‐time parenting in the next chapter. While he gives an interesting, broadly‐based discussion about the roles and attitudes towards full‐time fathers, this chapter is only partially focused on work‐life balance. Even so, the context Kildare provides helps others better understand the issues facing fathers who are sole parents or the main caregivers.

Jill Worrall addresses the needs of another group who are often overlooked, the growing number of custodial grandparents in our society. As she notes:

[…] who should by right be unconcerned about work‐life‐family balance, having completed their contribution to both the labour market and unpaid work, and be drawing from that investment to enjoy a well‐deserved leisure, but who are denied this privilege because they have taken custodial responsibility for the raising of their grandchildren (pp. 157‐8).

She considers these families have special needs and should gain special support.

Being an unpaid caregiver is the focus of chapter ten. Brunton, Fouché and Jordan point out that we know more about work‐balance issues for those in paid employment, than for those who receive no financial reward for their work. Reporting on a study involving unpaid caregivers of Alzheimer's patients, the authors draw attention to the issues which constrain caregivers from having a better quality of life. For example, lack of financial assistance, need for stimulating company, quality time to themselves, lack of recognition, needing help with their own housework and gardening are just a few of the problems.

The next chapter deals with women setting up lifestyle businesses. Janet Sayers reports on a content analysis of 85 articles published in the magazine Next on women's lifestyle businesses. While Sayers acknowledges the limitations of the study of these particular articles, such as the profiled businesses all being successful, and the owners much more often than not being middle‐class New Zealand European women, we are shown yet another perspective. For many of these women, the importance of work‐life balance motivated them to start their business venture.

Artists are a particularly fascinating example of the problem of work‐life balance. Marilyn Waring points out that they are often seen as not having a “real” job, not being busy and being able to be more flexible than other people. However, the reality is that many need to take up supplementary jobs in order to survive. Women, in particular, have been hampered in furthering their artistic careers owing to “gendered traps around household work” (p. 215).

The final chapter, by Robyn de Bruin‐Judge is entitled “Invisible work of partners in compliance of small‐business operators” and addresses the legislative compliance requirements for small‐ and medium‐enterprise (SME) owners. Reporting on her research of SME owners, she discusses the “compliance role” and the stresses associated with that responsibility. In many instances, the female spouse of the SME owner has taken on this role; a role that is unpaid, and lacking visibility in statistical, financial and physical senses. Consequently, these partners are often juggling responsibilities and high work‐loads.

The sometimes poignant stories that are told in Managing Mayhem illustrate the hopelessness for some people of ever attaining a sense of balance. The stress, financial constraints, lack of freedom associated with caring for a disabled family member, or for grandchildren, for example, often mean people cannot experience much time for themselves. Where is the time for fun? There are also those individuals whose priority is to find employment, or whose jobs require them to work long hours. Leisure time is not quite so enjoyable if one cannot find work. Work is not necessarily a nine to five, orderly existence. Marilyn Waring's chapter on artists illustrates that to pursue one's passion often blurs the lines between work and “life”. Insufficient work and income from their creativity may force them to take on another job. Some people's work is unpaid and “invisible”. They are not even part of the equation when it comes to work policies, let alone anyone having a concern about the impact of this work on the quality of their life.

Part of the problem is that work‐life balance can so easily be dismissed as just another buzz word. Yet the perspectives gathered in this volume show that most of us assume that we understand the concept from a very limited, oversimplified perspective. Work and life are not two separate things that can readily be “balanced”. They are inextricably mixed up with each other and it would be difficult to explain how one would know when “balance” had been achieved. Nevertheless, the fascinating descriptions of various people's lives expand our awareness of the complexity of defining the term and the difficulty of recognising the multiple and diverse barriers that stand in the way for many different groups in achieving anything that could be called work‐life balance.

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