29 September 2017 | by DOP Work-Life Balance Working Group
The following article has been written by Professor Gail Kinman and Dr Almuth McDowall, Co-Chairs of the DOP Work-Life Balance Working Group.
The 2nd to the 6th of October is National Work Life Week, which aims to highlight the importance of work-life balance for the wellbeing of employees and families and to encourage organisations to consider how this might be improved.
Work-life balance is the number one health challenge in the workplace and a key goal for people of all ages, but younger workers seem to find it particularly difficult to balance the demands of their work with maintaining an active and fulfilling personal life.
An increasing number of people are working in the ‘gig’ economy, meaning that work contracts are often short-term, ill defined, or based on zero guaranteed hours. The need to be responsive to clients and meet tight deadlines means that many feel unable to switch off from work, which has major implications for their recovery and long-term health as well as the success of their business ventures.
The Work-life Balance Working Group was set up in 2009 to disseminate evidence-based initiatives for managing the interface between work and personal life. Our group includes high-profile academics and practitioners with a wealth of experience in conducting research and developing interventions and our members regularly feature in the media as well as the academic press.
Our role is to help people meet the challenges of balancing work and life in the 21st century workplace and to directly address ddress contemporary concerns, such as the implications of the ‘always on’ culture, for personal life and wellbeing.
Our work on e-resilience has been particularly influential, identifying the activities, processes and policies that individuals and organisations need in a culture where rapid technological change and intensifying work demands means that setting firm boundaries between work and personal life is increasingly difficult.
Although building e-resilience in the workforce should be considered a priority, there is surprisingly little guidance available on how to help people engage with technology in a way that protects their wellbeing and boosts their productivity.
Our research has found that most employers only provide their workers with general health and safety guidance, and that formal policies or targeted training are largely absent. Many struggle to set limits on their use of technology and feel overwhelmed by the volume of email traffic and the expectations for a rapid response.
The urgent need for clear guidance and policies on e-mail use has recently been highlighted in a report commissioned by the ACAS, which emphasises the importance of managers promoting healthy email use.
Another key aspect of e-resilience is a recognition of the need for ‘email and e-communications etiquette’ where employees respect the practices and preferences of colleagues.
Our work has drawn attention to the importance of individual differences in determining what is ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ engagement with technology and, although flexibility is crucial, some demarcation between work and personal life is required to maintain health and performance.
From 2014 all UK employees who had worked for their employer for at least 26 weeks became eligible to request flexible working arrangements. Employers are required to consider any such requests, but can refuse for valid business reasons.
Great claims are made for the benefits of flexible working for productivity, wellbeing and work–life balance, not to mention the benefits to the green sustainability agenda from reduced commuting and office enegy costs.
Nonetheless, in terms of the effects on employees, robust reviews of the evidence have concluded that any gains from flexible working are modest at best.
Indeed, under some conditions flexibility can even intensify stress and increase conflict between work and personal life. Organisations and individuals need to be mindful that flexibility does not become a ‘cover’ for increasing work and personal demands. Such expectations can lead to role stress, where people are juggling multiple competing demands, and employers are finding that their remote workers often feel socially isolated and are gravitating back to the office to spend some time with their colleagues.
Our working group also aims to help organisations think creatively about how to improve work-life balance and avoid simplistic, ‘one-size-fits all’, solutions that may do more harm than good. For example, making one day a week ‘email free’ can encourage face-to-face communication, but the rest of the week remains stressful and people may struggle to catch up with their backlog of email.
As a result it is equally important to be aware of individual differences in the extent to which people want their work and personal life to be separated or integrated.
While many people strive to set limits, there is no strong support for a blanket ban on email use outside formal office hours. Setting time limits may benefit some but disadvantage others, such as those who may be juggling work and family responsibilities, or working across time zones. Any solutions must be based on evidence and address the root causes of email overload while also being aware of personal preferences.
It is also important to raise awareness of the strategies which different people use to manage the boundary between the two domains of work and life.
Research conducted by Ellen Kossek in the USA suggests that people are either separators, integrators or volleyers (those who alternate between the two), and the key factor for wellbeing is not whether the work and personal domains are separated or integrated, but the extent to which people feel in control of their work-life balance.
In summary, there is no doubt that 21st century work is changing rapidly and offers opportunities as well as challenges for when and how we work. The changes are so profound that organisations need support and advice to help them understand how to craft, embed and sustain activities which help individuals thrive to the benefit of their wellbeing and productivity. It is our mission to support this by highlighting what occupational psychologists can offer.
Dr Almuth McDowall is head of Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck University, London.
Her research interests include professional development, occupational health and worklife balance, the latter sparked by autobiographical experiences as a full time working mother of three.