Work-life balance; we’re doing it wrong

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.

Cross posted

Update: Per the comment from TheDeviantE, I have edited the post by replacing the word “gyp” with “crock.”


14 responses to “Work-life balance; we’re doing it wrong

  1. As I was reading your post, I found myself disliking the way work and life are dichotomised. It’s assuming that we all experience ‘work’ as time away from our ‘lives’. I don’t *love* the work I do for money but I see it as part of my life…hmm, this has the flavour of turning into a blog post of my own. I’m off to follow your links.

  2. I dunno, I think the interference thing is more than a quibble. I do have a real problem joining in with the work-life discussion, for a great number of reasons, one of them being that the discussion is so often dichotomised and I never quite know how to express my discomfort with that.

    But that ‘interference’ – I think that’s a startling choice of word. It gives the debate an incredibly ‘glass half empty’ flavour (which, for many people of course it is, but language matters and if we call it interference that’s what it will always be). And because all sorts of things ‘interfere’ with all sorts of other things, and my goodness, but I have a lot to say about this…but I better go, because I’ve got children quietly reading now and I need to fit in a bit more script polishing

  3. The post seems really interesting, but I thought I’d let you know that reading “gyp” in there threw me for a loop.

    From what I know, “gyp” is considered a derogatory word leveled at Roma populations, stemming from “gypsy” and the supposed dishonesty of the Romani. I know it can be hard to excise language from one’s vocabulary, but for “gyp” or “gypped” I really do recomend it.

  4. Thanks for letting me know that, DeviantE. I’m sorry to have done that. I’ll go and change the word right now.

  5. That’s got to be one of the most debated word origins in the history of usenet, but I thought that the theory that it came from the word gypsy had been discredited. It comes (supposedly) from a garment called the gippo tunic.

    As you were.

  6. Wherever it comes from, it’s no big deal to change it. And in any case, if it is now perceived to have come from gypsy, and for whatever reason now carries the freight of insulting Roma people, then it’s worth avoiding it.

  7. The best thing I ever did to feel happy about my work/life balancing act was to pay a cleaner to come in once a week. That way once a week I come home to clean floors and clean bathrooms. Not having to clean the shower rocks. The rest of the week I can cope with.

  8. @ThirdCat: Work-life “interference”, hmm… In which two things cohere and decohere, making beautiful patterns which enhance and make possible all kinds of things in the world around them? 😉

  9. I like that interference privileges one over the other- that is, life is the more important.

    As for whether it should be dichotomised, that again may have purpose. When I think of corporate lawyers who work 60-80 hour weeks and the like, what is notable is just how enmeshed work is, so that they are not away from it on the weekend, or on holiday, when they should be able to pay more attention to more important things like their loved ones.

  10. That’s the thing. Yes, people have to work somehow so everyone can be taken care of, but … how many people’s jobs really require overtime? If there’s more than 40 hours of work a week, every week, why don’t bosses hire more people? Why do they get to flout the labor laws? How many jobs really have legitimate emergencies right before going-home time? How many ’emergencies’ actually consist of the boss not bothering to mention he planned to keep you late until 4:55 pm? How many of them could be covered or prevented with extra staff instead of extra hours?

    The problem with talking about work-life ‘balance’ is that much of ‘life’ is not accounted for in our value-and-cost system. When you compare that with the priced and deadlined ‘work’, it’s possible to argue that ‘work’ outweighs almost all of ‘life’. Then ‘work’ gets to interfere with ‘life’ without limits.

    I think this relates to the subject of how much businesses should be allowed to interfere with support systems (keeping parents from staying home with sick kids / young children / elderly relatives; leaving workers no sanity time; giving no time off on election day; etc.) to boost their private profits.

  11. selidor – that’s beautiful. I obviously have to do a bit more thinking now.
    when I’ve got time in about a month, I’ll come back to this…thanks for the post Deborah

  12. I don’t know any of the answers to this. I know that I spend more of my life working than I would like (a very full time job), but I don’t know any other way that I can find work that I find deeply challenging and satisfying (and I’ve been looking).

    One thing I’ll throw into the conversation. I was talking to a friend of mine who works three days a week and she said that while she always feels rushed, she has stopped needing a “mental health day”every now and again. She used to need one every six months. Now although she has just as much to do, she has the right brainspace balance, if not the right busyness balance.

    Of course it might help that her husband works four days, so/and they are both managing the house, rather than just her.

  13. Quite a few of my colleagues at work have gone to four day weeks, paid pro-rata. I think a lot of better-paid people are looking at that. Lucky for some, eh? But anyway, I don’t know any who’ve gone back to a full week. Every time we have a long weekend, I think to myself, man, I should do that too.

    I remember some years ago a newly-imported American manager complaining that he did not understand his New Zealand employees. “They only work to fund their hobbies!” he moaned. Unfortunately, the notion that the most important hours of your life should be spent for pay is gaining ground in some quarters.

  14. We are both 80%. It works reasonably well a lot of the time.

    I don’t view work as an interference to my life- at least when it’s going well and it feels that what I am working on is worth doing and valued and that I like and respect the people I’m working with. It’s satisfying earning, extending my skills and exercising my competence. I hate and resent it though when I feel like I am wasting my time on futile pointlessness, not valued, not learning or developing and that I don’t like or respect my co-workers.