Work-life balance: a cycle not a goal

Few topics have been so endlessly analysed and dissected as the work-life balance. For years the search for this somewhat hazy state has dominated discourse – especially for working parents. The concept is often presented as a goal to reach. And once you’ve reached it, well done; you’re a successful human being of the 21st Century.

The Electoral Manifestos of the political parties in Malta in the last ten years have acknowledged the importance of the work-life balance and talked up the parties’ ideas about how to achieve it.  No doubt, in the next few months we will be told again how they propose to improve it.

You see, all too often the problem is that we tell ourselves: “I’m going to put in eight hours’ worth of work, and then I’m going to put in eight hours’ worth of me time, which will include my family, my hobbies, my workout, my everything.”  Says Anat Lechner, clinical associate professor of management at New York University: “I don’t think it’s such a simple formula.”

Indeed, according to new findings, it may not be. Some researchers are now encouraging us to stop thinking about work-life balance as an achievement that you either reach or don’t. Instead, they suggest it may be more of a lifelong process – a continuous, never-ending cycle that requires vigilance, self-awareness and timely tweaks.

Work and life are often thought of as a zero-sum of hours in conflict, but work-life balance also depends on investment in care and men’s full participation in the home.

The average proportion of women aged 15-64 in the workforce increased from 41.1% in 2012 to 64.6% in 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led us to rethink radically how we live, work and combine the two. But even before the pandemic, work-life conflict had come to be a key concern in European societies, in the context of the elevated employment of women, the changing nature of work, population ageing and anxieties in some quarters over low fertility.

Under the traditional ‘male breadwinner’ model, the competing exigencies of work and family were managed by a division of labour between the sexes — men were primarily responsible for paid work, women for caring. Increasingly however, European citizens have to combine caring and employment roles, with consequences for work-family tension.

In Malta, in the last few years, particularly since 2013, the male breadwinner model has been breaking down. In fact, whereas during the four-year period between 2009-2012, the average proportion of women aged 15-64 in the work-force was 41.1%, in the subsequent eight-year period to 2020 it had increased to 56.2%, reaching 64.6% in 2020.

Comparing that with the situation in the EU, whereas the proportion of women during those same two periods increased by 3.2 p.p., that in Malta rose by 15.1 p.p. That five-fold rise in the proportion meant that a 19.5 p.p. disadvantage for Malta was transformed into almost a 2 p.p. advantage. But work remains to be done to close the gap between men and women from Malta’s 17 p.p. to the EU’s 10 p.p.

The central idea in work-life conflict is that meeting demands in one domain can make it difficult to meet demands in the other. As a result, two conflicts occur. One is a ‘time-based conflict’, where time spent on responsibilities associated with one role is not available for the other. The other is a ‘strain-based conflict’, where pressures arising in one domain make it difficult to fulfil other obligations.

The work-life conflict potentially has many negative effects. There can be consequences for personal effectiveness, physical and mental health, the ability to engage in paid work at all, intimate-partner and child-parent relationships and even child development.

As European policymakers try to increase the proportion of the population, particularly women, in paid work to enhance competitiveness and reduce poverty, work-life conflict becomes an even greater consideration.

A good work-life balance has numerous positive effects, including less stress, a lower risk of burnout and a greater sense of well-being.

The pandemic has highlighted how much we rely on caring — paid and unpaid — for the effective functioning of society. Creative ways to combine social and individual investment in child-rearing and adult care with skills accumulation and sustained participation in paid work over the life course, need to be considered.

Many European societies are challenged to find employment arrangements that are economically viable and beneficial to men, women and children. Currently, paid employment and unpaid domestic labour remain unequally distributed between men and women throughout Europe. So, governments need to promote work-family balance and gender equality by making sure that policy measures apply to fathers as well as mothers.

Evidence from the 2008-2012 recessions suggests that family financial pressures and firm difficulties exacerbated work-family conflict for those most affected, but the COVID pandemic has changed work in a rather different way. Up to half of workers across the EU are currently working from home. Homeworking, for those who can, may offer new opportunities for combining work and home life — provided workers have the ‘right to disconnect’ and long working hours do not become the norm.

Comparing countries, some authors find that ‘family-friendly’ policies, such as support for childcare, tend to alleviate work-life conflict for families. Others find, however, that in countries where family-friendly policies lead to high labour-market participation by women, this is associated with greater interference in domestic life, though women gain financially. Labour-market policies which set upper limits on working time tend to apply to workers generally and this indirectly reduces work-life conflict.  

At European level, the Working Time Directive (2003) plays an important role in limiting long working hours. Complementary to it is the Work-life Balance Directive(2019) which seeks to reduce barriers to women’s labour-market participation by more flexible work arrangements and family leave.

At the public sector level in Malta, the work-life balance is taken seriously. In a 107-page manual, last updated last month, there are a plethora of schemes that contribute to a healthier balance. These include reduced hours, teleworking, remote working, career breaks, flexitime, leave for family reasons, unpaid leave, donation of hours, maternity & adoption leave, and parental leave.

This is all to the good, though a good proportion of women – and men – complain that this manual does not apply, or if it applies it is in practice ignored, by certain government entities or extensions of the government. MCAST is one of them.

And if it seems like finding that perfect balance remains elusive, the experts say that keeping some perspective can help. We’re in an era of catastrophic job losses; the pandemic alone has slashed 255 million jobs worldwide, and more jobs could be lost in the next decade as AI advances and more offices digitise. For millions of people, work is about being able to put food on the table, rather than reflecting on the work-life balance.

But for those who do have jobs, a good work-life balance has numerous positive effects, including less stress, a lower risk of burnout and a greater sense of well-being. This not only benefits employees but employers, too. 

Ah, that brings me to Maltese employers. Their association regularly talks about the golden goal, but facts on the ground speak otherwise. Only a few of them are committed to providing environments that support work-life balance for their employees, even though experience all over the world shows that it can save on costs, lead to fewer cases of absenteeism, and ensure a more loyal and productive workforce.   

Research by Erin Kelly, professor of work and organisation studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, shows that companies and managers can play a key role in creating a better environment for workers. For her book, Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What to Do About It, she and co-author Phyllis Moen split more than 1,000 employees at a Fortune 500 company into two groups: one that worked under a management redesign and one that continued working within the existing management structure.

Unsurprisingly, Kelly and Moen found that employees in the redesign group reported less stress, less burnout, were less likely to quit their jobs and, over the next four years, were 40% less likely to quit than those who kept working under the old policies.

All too often, the root problem is not how the two pieces of work and life come together. It’s that we have unrealistic expectations of what we’re asked to do on the work side. If your workplace isn’t an environment where work-life balance is possible in the first place, any strides you attempt to make toward it on a personal level will be in vain.

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