Walk The Line: The Importance of Work/Life Balance to Well-Being
In October 2011, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published a report entitled “How’s Life? Measuring Well-Being”. The report considered some of the most important aspects that shape people’s lives and well-being in 34 developed countries across the world. All of the information was collated to create a Better Life Index, indicating how each country performed in all categories as well as providing an overall score.
The factors used to measure well-being were quite varied, and included fundamental considerations such as jobs, housing, health, education, and personal security. These are the kind of important issues that get their own government departments. Yet the report also placed great importance on the extent to which people in each society are able to maintain a work/life balance. This is not a topic regularly debated at Prime Minister’s Questions, so why is it so important to a person’s well-being?
The balance between work, family commitments and personal life can be difficult to maintain, and failure to find this balance can have wide-ranging implications. Too little time spent working may mean that the worker is unable to earn sufficient income and can also harm productivity for their employer. Too much time spent working can have an adverse effect on the worker’s health and social or family life. On a wider scale, failing to ensure workers (especially those with children) achieve a healthy work/life balance can impact upon a country’s level of development.
The UK finished in the middle of the report’s table for work/life balance, earning 17th place with a distinctly average 7 points out of a possible 10. This placed it behind its European neighbours and economic rivals Germany and France, as well as Estonia, Canada and Portugal. The UK was also far behind the torch-bearer for work/life balance, Denmark, which managed to obtain an impressive 9.1 out of 10. In fact all of the Scandinavian countries performed well, with Norway coming second in the list and Sweden not trailing too far behind. So what are they getting right that the British are not?
The report considered three indicators in determining the scores for work/life balance: the percentage of the workforce working long hours (i.e. more than 50 hours per week), the average amount of time devoted to leisure and personal care, and the employment rate of women with school-age children. The first two factors are fairly obvious measures of work/life balance. The third is included to take into account the effect maintaining a work/life balance has on children and child well-being.
A rather large 11.92% of employees in the UK work long hours, placing it 24th in the OECD’s list for this indicator. The main reason for working such hours is of course a greater salary. Those working long hours generally tend to be male employees working to ensure a sufficient overall household income following marriage and children. Yet despite this, the average amount of time devoted to leisure and personal care (including sleeping and eating) was 15.6 hours, placing the UK 13th for this indicator.
The UK’s employment rates for mothers of school-aged children are close to the OECD average, with 67% of such women in paid employment. This still leaves a gap between the actual and desired rates of employment for women, which stem from the fact that women are still considered to be primarily responsible for childcare and family responsibilities. Despite this, the figures do indicate that women in the UK are able to balance parenthood with their careers, and certainly childcare support exists for families on low incomes who wish to get into work. However, concerns remain about childcare costs for parents higher up the income scale, and the report has recommended the introduction of a childcare supplement for working parents in the UK.
One particularly surprising fact arising from the report is that even though men tend to spend on average 5 hours more per week in paid work, as well as more time commuting, women tend to have less leisure time than men. This is because women tend to spend more time doing unpaid activities such as childcare and housework. This gender imbalance has clearly impacted upon the UK’s overall score in the OECD’s assessment of work/life balance. The Government has of course made steps to address this by extending the right to request flexible working to all parents with children under 18 years old, as well as extending parental leave from 13 weeks to 18 weeks from March 2013. There are also proposals to introduce a new system of shared flexible parental leave.
Maintaining a balance between work, family commitments and personal life is not easy, and many employees are concerned about how reducing their hours may harm their career progression. But to paraphrase a popular saying, it’s not how many hours you have, it’s how you use them.
This article was first published as part of our Employment Law Update - February 2012. To subscribe, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- STShampstead: Disclosure & Barring Service (which replaced Criminal Records Bureau at end of last year) is launching new Update Service on 17 June 2013.