Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2007, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Introduction: What work? What life? What balance?
Introduction: What work? What life? What balance?
The articulation of work and life, cast as work-life balance, has become a key feature of much current government, practitioner and academic debate. The main message of this debate is the need for “good work-life balance”. However, the debate and subsequent policy are too often based on assumptions about work and life derived from blunt readings of empirical data or misconceptions about employee attitudes to work and life. What is required therefore is analysis that explores the back-story to work-life balance debate as well as the operation of work-life balance policies. Compiling critical reflections on many aspects of the work-life balance debate, this special issue of Employee Relations hopes to initiate such analysis.
All of the articles in this special issue are drawn from a stream on the work-life boundary at the 24th Annual International Labour Process Conference hosted by the University of London in 2006. This stream resulted from our dissatisfaction with much current debate about work-life balance. Our individual and collective research over the years has revealed that only some workers experience work and life as separate and balanceable. For other workers, work and life are intertwined, even amalgamated, so that they cannot or do not want to distinguish and disentangle work and life (see for example Eikhof and Haunschild, 2006; Warhurst, 1996; Warhurst et al., 2008; but we are not alone in this observation, see for example Nippert-Eng, 1996; Salaman, 1974; Sennett, 2004; Westwood, 1984). The work-life balance debate seems to centre on a number of questionable assumptions and perceptions: that work is experienced as negative, with long working hours a particular problem; that “life” can be equated with caring responsibilities, most particularly childcare, with the result that women are the primary target of work-life balance provisions; and that work and life are separable and in need of being separated. Such assumptions need to be interrogated and it is the aim of this introduction to begin that critical reflection. The contributions to the special issue then unpack in more detail the issues of working time (Roberts), the control of working hours (Wise et al.), the influence of employee representation (Hyman and Summers) and the state (Burgess et al.) on, and occupation (Moore) and industry (Bergman and Gardiner) differences within, work-life balance practice and policy.
Working out the work in work-life balance
Generally, the work-life balance debate assumes that individuals have too much rather than too little work – a debilitating long working hours culture is said to be pervasive (IDS, 2000). In Italy the concern about working time features in Basso’s (2003) Modern Times, Ancient Hours, in the US in Schor’s (1991) The Overworked American and in the UK in Bunting’s (2004) Willing Slaves, in which it is claimed, playing on the book’s sub-title, work is not just ruling but ruining our lives. In France campaigns for reducing working time have rallied around the phrase “work less, live better” (cited in Fagnani and Letablier, 2004). Consequently, it is the – more or less explicit – premise that work is bad and to be contained, and throughout work-life balance debate and practice, working time is the stated point of intervention.
That work can have a debilitating effect on life is not new. Although not framed as such, work-life balance featured in earlier debate about the hidden injuries of work and the effects of these injuries on workers’ lives. Studs Terkel’s (1972, p. xiii) influential US book Working starts thus: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to the body. … The scars, psychic as well as physical, brought home to the supper table and the TV set, may have touched, malignantly, the soul of our society.” More recent, and similarly influential, analyses echo this theme. Australian Barbara Pocock (2003, p. 153), for example, picks up on the moodiness at home that results from working excessively long hours, the guilt that parents feel for not attending their children’s “significant events” at school and the fraying of community fabric as workers’ time to run local clubs disappears: “Grumpy people do not make great lovers, fathers, mothers, drivers, neighbours or golfers” she states.
What are different now are the context and the solutions to these perceived problems. In the past, from the human relations school of the 1930s to the behavioural psychology interventions of the 1950s to the socio-technical systems of the 1970s, solutions to debilitating work were sought in job redesign and better management that aimed at “humanising” the workplace. Despite claims that work is not just ruling our lives but ruining our lives, workplace practices feature remarkably little in current work-life balance debate. Instead, the solution is said to be rolling back work in order to provide remedial opportunity for workers to recover from work.
However, a slight of hand occurs at this point because the most common policy prescription by government and practice offered by employers is not to shorten working hours but to provide employees with more flexibility in their working hours, for instance by part-time working or flexi-hours. Two indicative examples from two anonymised British supermarket chains are provided by Nickson et al. (2004).
Employers have their own interest in flexible working hours (Wise et al. in this issue; see also Schneider et al. 2006). Having to service a 24/7 economy, employers need to deviate from the 9 to 5 work day. Flexible working hours schemes are offered as work-life balance allowing employers to appear employee-friendly whilst meeting business needs. Other useful work-life balance provisions, such as crèches, are a more expensive option for employers and are less prevalent. In Schneider et al.’s (2006) research, 83 per cent of employers in German Rheinland-Pfalz offered flexible working hours and only 30 per cent other types of work-life balance provision. The perception of employer-employee win-win may well therefore be a one-sided gain. As Wise et al. note, the flexibility needs being met tend to be those of employers rather than employees.
Work-life balance policies at British supermarket chains
“Lifestyle options” at Yellow Supermarkets. Job sharing, term-time contracts, career leave, fostering and adoption leave, dependency leave, maternity leave, paternity leave, child break, enhanced parental leave – eligibility extended to all parents with children under five, compassionate and emergency leave, unpaid leave for child’s first day of school.“Work-life balance” at Blue Supermarkets. Term-time contracts (parents do not need to work during school holidays), variable hours contract (flexibility in hours worked during term-time and holidays), dual store contracts, part-time working, job share, enhanced maternity leave and pay, paternity leave, parental leave, career break schemes of up to five years for childcare, special leave for up to one year for personal development or caring responsibilities, subsidised workplace nurseries in certain locations and dependency leave (Nickson et al., 2004).
As the above examples also reveal, flexible working arrangements have a common theme – workers having caring responsibilities. The common premise is that work-life balance provisions are introduced to help employees reconcile what they want to do (care) with what they have to do (work). However, there is ambiguity here. Current public discourse aimed at the prime targets of work-life balance programmes (young working mothers) promotes, even idealises, work. In lifestyle magazines, TV drama and “Yummy Mummy” novels aimed at affluent, suburban thirty-something females, work features as a place of intellectual expression and personal achievement as opposed to the loving but intellectually stultifying and socially under-appreciated realm of school runs, grocery shopping and coffee mornings (see also Behr, 2007). Under these circumstances, work can represent escape and self-expression. Indeed, academic research has found that, for women, having more than two children leads to longer working hours “as a means of escaping family stress” (Cowling, 2005: 30) - a point also argued by Hochschild (1997). Even when work is experienced as stressful, workers may prefer it to home Trinca and Fox argue in Better than Sex; “running parallel with the exhaustion and long hours in the workplace there [is] a sense of excitement and purpose about work. It seem[s] that many people fe[el] real at work, where life [is] sometimes smoother than at home” (Trinca and Fox, 2004, p. 7).
This experience raises a key point. Not only do work-life balance programmes pay little attention to deleterious work per se, they also ignore the possibility that work can be a source of satisfaction and self-fulfilment. As Isles (2004, p. 23) states, “work can make a major contribution – for some the major contribution – to overall life satisfaction” (emphasis in the original). Two-thirds of both UK men (66 per cent) and women (68 per cent) are satisfied or very satisfied with their current job according to Isles, who even argues that around 8 per cent of the UK workforce or 2.4m workers prefer work to home, suffering “work-lust”.
Thus, premised on negative and reductionist assumptions about work, the work-life balance debate fails to capture more varied employee attitudes to and engagement with work. This can be counter-productive, for, as Moore points out in her contribution to this issue, whether work-life balance is achieved can depend more on employee work attitudes than on employer work-life balance provisions.
Back to life
The UK’s Workplace Employment Relations Survey (WERS), published in 2004, shows that work-life balance polices within workplaces are becoming much more widespread. A closer look at these policies reveals that the work-life balance debate also has a particular perception of life – one centred on caring responsibilities. It is nearly exclusively childcare that features in any recognition of life, accompanied only by the occasional mentioning of care for elderly dependants, as if workers’ lives were only constituted around (child)care responsibility. As the 2004 WERS survey shows, the UK’s increased work-life balance policies centre on term-time working (up to 28 per cent of workplaces since the 14 per cent reported in the 1998 WERS survey), parental leave (73 per cent from 38 per cent) and paid paternity leave (92 per cent from 48 per cent) (Kersley et al., 2006). Furthermore, the care responsibilities underpinning these policies are regarded as those of women. As McDonald et al. (2005, p. 481) note, “although ostensibly gender neutral, these policies in practice revolve around facilitating the working conditions of women”. And although both men and women might experience work as debilitating of their lives, work-life balance polices and practices are targeting at that group of the workforce – women – who still carry most responsibility for childcare, even in “gender neutral” Sweden, as Bergman and Gardiner note in their contribution to this special issue (see also Hülskamp, 2007; Niejahr, 2007).
This narrow equating of “life” with care within work-life balance debate is an outcome of two related interests, that of government and that of employers. Although the phrase “work-life balance” insinuates a fulfilled, holistically balanced life, for neither governments nor employers is worker self-fulfilment the main concern. For government, the issue is not having better lives but breeding new lives; more specifically the reproduction of the future labourforce at a time when birth-rates are in decline (EC, 1999). Only five EU countries had natural population increases by 2004. For the others, population increase occurred through migration. Over 2003, the total EU population increased by 1.2m but of which births accounted for only 0.2m (EC, 2004). The concern is that with less of the population of working age whilst the number of pensioners expands, the government revenue base shrinks whilst expenditure increases. In the UK alarmist headlines scream of a “baby crisis” and the “potentially disastrous consequences as work pressures force young women to shelve plans for a family” with childlessness forecast on a scale not seen since the First World War (Hinsliff, 2006, p. 1). Put succinctly, the problem for government is to find measures that enable parents to both work and spend time at home with their (hoped for) children.
Conversely, the problem for employers is that employees, especially women, do have children and, with a shrinking labour force, measures need to be found to draw into work the reserve army of mothers. Indeed, the “foundations” of work-life balance debate lay with employers with perceived recruitment and retention problems recognising the increase in the number of “parents … who have to fit their working lives around their childcare responsibilities” (IDS, 2000, p. 1). The solution is the introduction of “family-friendly” flexible employment. However, flexibility has to be compatible with business needs (IDS, 2000) and is introduced as firm financial circumstances allow, as Schneider et al. (2006) show for Germany. Employers seem to offer few work-life balance provisions that exceed the statutory minima set by government (Hyman and Summers; Burgess et al. in this issue). As with government, employers also recognise that it is women who still have most responsibility for childcare. Consequently, despite the rhetoric of work and “life”, the emphasis for employers is on women being able to tip the balance in favour of work or, more prosaically, being able to get out of the home and away from their children. An indicative example of this approach is provided by German company Wintershall AG below.
Work and life services at Wintershall AG
Despite a good reputation, Wintershall AG, located in a less attractive German town, had trouble attracting the right employees. The company introduced “Work & Life Services”, which established a corporate kindergarten and acts as an agency providing babysitters, au-pairs and emergency nannies. Employees on parental leave are continually updated on company news. “Parent and kid” workplaces were configured with a desk and toys for childcare emergencies. Work & Life Services also helps new employees to find schools for the children of its employees. As a result, the percentage of mothers who did not return from parental leave dropped from 90 per cent to nearly 0 per cent, parental leave now lasts 18 month on average compared to 34 months before and the number of specialists recruited from overseas has nearly tripled (Nuri, 2006).
Thus, although the state and employers come at the problem from different angles, the problem is commonly defined: the desirability and feasibility of separating life and work in order to accommodate domestic responsibilities, meaning family needs – both having and not having families. Undoubtedly, caring responsibilities and especially care for young children pose unresolved problems for many (and indeed female) workers but this narrow perception of life unnecessarily limits work-life balance policy and practice. Even for those who can neatly separate work and life, life outside work consists of more than care but standard work-life balance provisions neither attempt to lessen violence to the body nor take “life” in all its rich varieties into account.
Beyond the gripe
In assessing the work-life balance debate, it is important to understand not only the underlying assumptions about work and life, but also about the relationship between the two. Generally, work is assumed to have a negative impact on life. However, closer examination of the central concern, lengthening working hours, indicates that this assumption is too simplistic. Importantly, it should be recognised that the premise of a harmful long hours culture is misconceived; even more so when worker attitudes to any long working hours are examined. Put more strongly, the long working hours problem is being over-stated. First, historically, the UK and the rest of the EU have falling hours of work (Roberts, in this issue). Second, although the UK has relatively long working hours compared to other core EU countries, research by Flexecutive (cited in Isles, 2004) found that satisfaction with work-life balance is effected more by work colleagues than the number of hours worked. Sixty per cent of all workers are satisfied with their working hours. Only a minority want to work more flexibly (22 per cent). As Roberts argues, it may be that individual working hours are decreasing whilst the hours worked by households are increasing with more dual income and neo-traditional families as more women participate in the labour market. However, even in dual income families in which both parents work full-time, less than a third of respondents (29 per cent) in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2003 said that their hours of work are too long. This response is common across all other family types: single parent, neo-traditional and breadwinner (Mitchell, 2005, p. 37).
Moreover, there is no axiomatic demand for reduced working hours, even for those working longest hours. For instance, less than one-third of workers in Australia think that their working hours are too long (Martin and Pixley, 2005). Other Australian studies reveal that partnered men are happiest working full-time, even up to 50 hours per week. In fact, that they do so “is the major contributor to both partners’ life happiness” because of the consumptive power gained (Booth and van Ours, 2005, p. 20). Indeed, analysing the Household Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia Survey, these authors conclude that for both men and women job satisfaction is independent of hours of work. Such data indicates that the assumed simple, negative causal relationship between work and life is, at the very least, more complex. Other Australian data reveals that of more effect than working hours are job satisfaction and age. The latter finding is particularly interesting; older workers in Australia, those aged 55+ years are considerably more likely to state that work interferes with their family/personal life and to prefer shorter working hours than those likely to have young families (21-34 years) (Martin and Pixley, 2005).
Analysing European Foundation data from across the core 15 EU countries, Cowling (2005, p. 30) reveals that the critical determinant of long working hours – 60+– is industry and it is men who are more likely to work these hours. In Europe, marital status seems to have the biggest impact on working hours. Single men and women are least likely to work long hours and recently singled women as well as widowed men and women most likely, suggesting work as sustenance in times of personal difficulty; providing opportunity for socialisation or distraction and an “escape from domestic stress”. For men, there is no relationship between having children and working long hours; for women there is, but the evidence is mixed.
Supporting our earlier points, analyses of working hours suggest that work might be a source of satisfaction for some workers, or at least positive gain. Many workers who do work long hours do so because they want to, regarding work not as debilitating but affirming. Just over one-fifth of UK workers want to work more hours (Cowlin, 2005), with 40 per cent of those wishing to do so because they enjoy work (Isles, 2004). Of those workers who already work long hours, most (60 per cent) do so because they want quicker promotion, according to Isles. Not surprisingly, working longest hours is a “positive personal choice” to “get on”, according to Cowling (2005, p. 35). Most workers (64 per cent) who want to work more hours wish to do so to earn more money. A third of part-time workers want to work more hours for the same reason. Consequently, there is no evidence, Cowling states, that long working hours increases or decreases job satisfaction, suggesting that “for many workers a long hours culture may not be so deleterious to their enjoyment of work” (Cowling, 2005, pp. 30-31).
In the light of this evidence, long working hours per se can not be regarded as the main obstacle to work-life balance. Rather, other factors seem to cause workers to experience a time squeeze. In the UK, of slightly more importance to both men (77 per cent) and women (70 per cent) than their jobs is leisure (Isles, 2004) and the main reason stated for wanting to work less hours is not to spend more time with friends (21 per cent) or children (21 per cent) but to have more leisure time (45 per cent) (see also MacInnes, 2005). Workers without care responsibilities may even resent work-life balance policies that centre on parents and carers (CIPD, 2007). A linked factor might also be rising consumptive aspirations; with aspirations rising more than average incomes. To summarise Schor (1998), if in the 1950s we strove to keep up with the Jones’, who were typically our neighbours and therefore had similar income levels as ourselves, then today our reference group is Friends, characters of a television show who are young, urban professionals and whose income is considerably higher than that of the average viewer. As a consequence, we need to work more and longer to be able to pay for what we want or at least make the monthly payments on credit card bills. This unsustainable addiction to consumption has been termed “afflueza” by Hamilton and Denniss (2005), who explicitly link excessive consumption, indebtedness and overwork. Moreover, it seems that this powerful cycle of work and spend is becoming entrenched. Pocock (2006, p. 16 & 17) has revealed a “competitive consumption” amongst young Australians fuelled by corporate advertising and marketing strategies, and which contrasts with the relative frugality and thriftiness of their parents.
If men and women now need to work and have dual incomes in order to meet these consumptive aspirations, of more significance for women than long paid working hours as a source of dissatisfaction might be male partners who insufficiently contribute to household labour. Although more women are now entering the labour market and undertaking paid employment, consequential, complementary male propensity towards undertaking unpaid domestic labour has generally not increased, whether these men work full or part-time. As Pocock (2003) rightly agues, with current patterns of work and labour market participation and stasis in the domestic relations and roles between men and women, work and care collides. Having to undertake a “second shift” in the home therefore might account for why Australian women at least are happier with shorter working hours (Booth and van Ours, 2005). Better work-life balance might be attained not with flexible working for women but persuading men to finally shoulder equitable domestic responsibility. Again, the signs are not good, Pocock’s (2006, p. 143) research also revealed 40 per cent of young Australian males to be “open minimisers”, who plan for their future wives to do all the housework and less than two-thirds of young females expect to share this housework equitably.
Our brief overview of some of the issues overlooked in the work-life balance debate indicates that what is needed is a more nuanced appreciation, and research agenda, of the complex relationship between work and life that goes beyond the current zero-sum assumptions of work-life balance and perceptions of work and life.
First, the debate on work-life balance needs to bring the workplace and work experience back into the frame of analysis. So far, work features almost exclusively as paid labour and is assumed to be a negative experience, overspills from which are to be contained. This assumption contradicts the central tenets of human resource management, organisational behaviour and psychology which all claim that work can be satisfying, motivating and self-fulfilling. Moreover, containing work rather than reforming it also distracts attention from an important potential source of life satisfaction: work itself.
Second, work-life balance debate needs to progress to a more holistic understanding of life. Life is implicitly assumed to be a positive experience that individuals prefer to work. This crude generalisation is of little use for understanding and shaping concrete work-life balance practices for specific organizations and occupations. Moreover, life is too readily equated with care responsibilities, and more precisely, with female care responsibilities. Whilst care commitments, and especially those of women, do continue to be an important issue, it is essential to be aware of and overcome this particular understanding of life and the limits it imposes on the work-life balance debate.
Third, the empirical premises that work-life balance policy and practice draw upon need to be examined. It is highly questionable whether work and life do constitute separated spheres; rather, there is mutuality between the two. While workers may feel pressured for time, neither lengthening working hours, nor long working hours are likely to be the sole or even main reason. The feeling of being caught in a time squeeze may rather result from, for instance, changed aspirations of lifestyles and consumption or gendered domestic labour arrangements. None of these issues feature saliently as requiring intervention within current work-life balance debate.
Drawing on conceptual and empirical material and ranging over manufacturing and services in different countries, the contributions to this special issue interrogate many of these issues. In so doing, the contributions challenge some of the assumptions and perceptions that currently feature in the work-life balance debate, and begin mapping out the terrain for further and better research about the relationship between work and life.
About the authors
Doris Ruth Eikhof is Lecturer in Organization Studies at the Department of Management, University of Stirling. Her research interests include creative industries, changing forms of work and organizations, work-life boundaries and organizations and lifestyles. She can be contacted at email@example.com
Chris Warhurst is Professor of Labour Studies and Co-Director of the Scottish Centre for Employment Research at the University of Strathclyde. His teaching, research and writing focus on labour process and labour market issues and developments. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Axel Haunschild is Professor for Human Resource Management at the University of Trier. His research interests include changing forms of work and organization, creative industries, the institutional embeddedness of work and employment, and organizational boundaries. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Doris Ruth Eikhof, Chris Warhurst, Axel HaunschildGuest Editors
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