Professor Barbara Pocock, of the Centre for Work and Life at the University of South Australia, thinks that we shouldn’t be talking about work-life balance at all. We should call it work-life interference, and try to measure how much work interferes with our life.
Professor Pocock leads a research team that conducts an annual survey relating to work-life in Australia. The survey has been running for three years now, so she and her team are starting to be able to pick out some trends. The most recent survey shows that part time work is no magic solution to the work-life balance struggle.
Professor Pocock, director of the Centre for Work and Life at the University of South Australia, told The Weekend Australian full-time working women should not kid themselves that going part-time would solve their problems.
“A third of full-time working women overall, 40 per cent of mothers and 25per cent of women without children, say they would rather work part-time,” she said.
“But this study suggests a lot of women will be disappointed by the amount of emotional relief they get by going part-time. On average, it will be better, but it is certainly not as big a change as you might expect.
“Everyone thinks those two free days mean you can run a house without help. So women tend not to purchase substitutes for their own time — they are much less likely to use a cleaner. But on the other side of that is a workplace that is often asking you to work from home or be available on those days off.”
I was deeply relieved to hear that. My own experience, having worked both official part time hours, and as a casual, is that the juggle gets no better. If I am working part time, then the amount I do at home and in the community simply increases, and my overall commitments don’t decrease. I could forego the community work, but I don’t do a lot of that anyway, and for the most part it’s centred around my children’s school, which relies heavily on volunteer parents (mostly mums, but quite a few dads too). Other parents at my daughters’ school say the same; if they do less paid work, then they simply end up doing more housework. Of course, data is not the plural of anecdote, and until now, my evidence has been only at the level of anecdote. So it’s rather nice to have my suspicion that part time work is a crock confirmed.
But it part time workers are unhappy with their work-life balance, full time workers are even less satisfied, especially mothers. Here Professor Pocock has some interesting data. Overall, about two-thirds to three-quarters of workers are satisfied with their work-life balance. However, over the three years that the study has been running, men’s satisfaction with work-life balance has remained about the same, but women’s has decreased (p.25 of full report). Professor Pocock speculates that this may have something to do with the economic downturn. The survey was conducted in March 2009, when the downturn was still very much heading down. Elsewhere, we’ve seen that although more men are losing jobs, creating the so-called “man-cession” (like, d’oh, go get a job in the caring sector, where lots of women have retained their jobs), women have remained responsible for the daily balancing of household budgets (Time article, UK Government Equalities Office report PDF – 528kb), creating extra stress for them, and perhaps adding to the daily struggle to balance work and life.
It does seem that a bit of flexibility is part of the answer; employees who asked for and were granted flexibiltiy in thier work arrangements reported much less work-life “interference” (Professor Pocock’s term – more on that below). Unsurprisingly, employees who were not granted flexibility remained unhappy, but so too did employees who were granted only a bit of flexibility, not all the flexibility they had asked for (p. 67 of the full report). It’s an all or nothing deal. Professor Pocock suggests that this means that legislation needs to do more than allow employees to ask for flexibility. It needs to put some onus on the employer to grant it if at all possible.
There’s lots of fascinating data in the report. It’s all available on-line, along with several press releases, from the Centre for Work and Life’s homepage.
But… work-life “interference.” I can see why Professor Pocock uses this term; a lot of the work is based around asking respondents to what extent they feel that their work interferes with their life. I’m not so keen on that, because no matter what, if you and the kids are to be fed and clothed and educated and housed and kept healthy and tended when unwell, then someone’s got to work, either running a business or as an employee, or at the most basic level, growing food and making shelters and clothes. Irrevocably, work is part of life, and one way or another, we have to find a way to juggle work commitments with family and life commitments. I prefer to see it as a juggle. That to me captures the sense that work is part of what we do, not something that interferes with what we do. It’s one of the many things we need to manage. “Juggle” also captures the sense that if just one thing goes wrong, a slight mishandling, a ball that’s a bit too heavy or fraction larger than the others, then unless we are very, very skilled, or very highly resourced (family and friends nearby to help, sympathetic employer, plenty of money to buy your way out of trouble), or just plain lucky, then it will all come crashing down.
But that’s a mere quibble. This is a fascinating project, and it will be interesting to see what comes out of it in future years.
Update: Per the comment from TheDeviantE, I have edited the post by replacing the word “gyp” with “crock.”