Getting the Right Balance
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Sarah loves her job. Since joining her company five years ago, she has progressed from a relatively junior position to a role that now involves managing a small team. It’s exciting and rewarding work.
And yet increasingly Sarah feels she is being pulled in two opposing directions. With a full diary of work-related activities, she often stays in the office late and checks e-mails at home late at night. Meanwhile, she realises she is struggling to see friends, visit her parents regularly and even attend the yoga class that once a central part of her life.
Sarah is not alone. Many employees feel that no matter how much they enjoy going to work, the demands of their employment are, to some degree submerging other aspects of life. And if the balance between work and life isn’t right, the result is often low morale and rising stress.
This isn’t good for the employee or the employer. Indeed, according to the health and safety executive, stress accounts for 47% of all days lost to sickness in the UK.
The Cause of Imbalance
The workplace is changing. Wind the clock back twenty years or so and the lines of demarcation between the office, factory or retail floor and the wider world were relatively clear-cut. An employee left for home at 5.00 or 6.00pm and returned the next morning. Work didn’t impinge much on the space between. Today, on the other, employees are connected via smartphone and laptops all through the evening. An employee can become addicted to staying in the loop. Employers may be sending out messages late into the evening.
Working hours are also expanding as companies understandably respond to demands from customers for longer hours of service. Working a late shift suits some, but for others, it prevents social activities.
Culture can play a part too. A workplace where staying at your desk through the lunch break or through to 7.00 or 8.00pm may reflect a need to get work done in a timely manner but those who need to get home to cook for children may feel pressurised to conform to the norm.
Individual attitudes to the balance between work and life may change with time. For instance, men and women may be much less able to stay late at the office if a sick relative needs care or if a child requires a lift to a youth club. Suddenly a previously content member of staff feels the stress of split loyalties.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Talk to Your Employer
Employers have a responsibility consider work/life balance and perhaps, more importantly, companies have a vested interest in maintaining a happy and productive workforce.
They have legal responsibilities too. For instance, under EU regulations, the default position for most employees is that they shouldn’t work for more than 48 hours (average) in any one week period. Employees can opt out and work longer, but this requires them to agree.
Employers also have an obligation to consider requests for the kind of flexible arrangement that might allow you to, say, start and consequently finish earlier, with the hours aligned to match your other commitments.
But what if the problem is not official working hours but unofficial, cultural practices.
You shouldn’t be afraid to set your own boundaries based on personal circumstances. For instance, if you have to be home by 6.00 but the prevailing culture in the office is to hang on until 7.00, it’s important to tell your colleagues that you need to go, without feeling guilty. Employers have a responsibility to create a culture in which employees can be open about their concerns and requirements.
Consider also setting boundaries for yourself – say in the form of self-imposed rules on checking e-mail unnecessarily late at night or phoning into work while on holiday.
It isn’t always easy to achieve a good work-life balance, but with goodwill on both sides and a willingness to communicate, you can do a lot to relieve the associated stresses.