22 Jun Work-life imbalance – A global problem getting worse
“Society is changing but the way we think about work life isn’t. Everyone knows the present organization of work does not work, but nobody is ready to translate this into actual practice, despite this having serious implications for gender equality and life satisfaction.”
This quote by a Dutch man is taken from a paper by Rhonda Rappaport, Suzan Lewis and Richenda Gambles entitled, “Work-Personal Life Harmonization: Visions and Pragmatic Strategies for Change”. It presents a consensus view of multiple organizational and work- life experts on what’s driving and what could potentially solve the imbalance between paid work and personal life. The authors argue that this is a global problem affecting workers in both the developed as well as developing worlds. In their view, the work-life balance movement seems to be sputtering across the globe despite much attention and some progress coming to grips with this issue.
Things are bad all over
According to the authors, the main culprit for the growing gap between work and life is globalization and the “productivity” pressures it’s causing that are undermining progressive policies and a focus on equity in the workplace. “The global economic climate perpetuates and exacerbates notions of efficiency that involve fewer people doing more work as well as myths and assumptions that characterize ‘ideal’ workers as those who can work as though they have few or no outside responsibilities outside of paid work.” As a result, there seems to be a pervasive underlying belief in business that harmonizing personal life and work requires a tradeoff between profits and people and the profits are more important.
The authors argue that individuals, employers and societies around the world feel generally powerless to do much about this situation because the changes that would improve things seem to go against global economic trends. They go on to describe the situation in several countries. In Norway for example, the problem of work-life imbalance still largely exists despite all the support for work- personal life harmonization offered by the Norwegian state and companies.
In the Netherlands innovative government measures have also been implemented but global pressures seem to be undermining them because of the perception that competitiveness rests on `commitment’ through working long hours and the general intensification of work.
In Japan, the workplace is still heavily dominated by males and long hours are the norm. In India, work-life balance is seen as a luxury issue for a growing middle class of professional workers and economic development is perceived as more urgent than social well being and people issues. In industries like IT and business process outsourcing, the pressures and work intensity rivals anything in the US and UK.
In the UK, systematic change has been slow despite a slew of initiatives aimed at this problem. Long working hours and intensification of work seem to be getting more acute. Flexible working arrangements are often associated with more work not less. “For all the debate about work-life balance there is the feeling that the debate is feminized and stuck”.
In the US, there has been a “hands off” government policy toward this issue, leaving it completely up to the private sector to handle. So called “flexible working” practices are widespread but in the cases where policies and initiatives exist within companies, the intent is to increase the amount of work. And in many cases, even these limited policies get undermined by the intensive working conditions and high pressure cultures.
What’s holding back change?
The consensus of the experts is that an overemphasis on economics has led to an overall decline in well being when viewed in terms of social and human capital. Excess individualism and consumerism is eroding community and social well being across the world. The rise of new forms of globalization and technology add a super boost to work-personal life tensions.
Compounding these problems is the limited thinking currently about:
• Alternatives to current implementations of market economies that also value people
• Changing men-women relationships at all levels of society
• Valuing those who `want a life’ outside the workplace
• Thinking beyond quick fixes and the actual processes of change
With so many factors driving this problem one is compelled to ask whether work-personal life harmonization is even possible in a world of relentless global pressures to keep down costs and raise productivity at an ever increasing rate. The authors believe it is, but that it can only be achieved through the development of new ways of working that are both socially and economically sustainable. This means breaking the iron grip of dogmatic economic thinking regarding the ways market economies are implemented. Vexing gender equality issues must be sorted out. Experiments in workplace cultures, organizational structures and working practices will need to be creatively implemented. Quick fix mentalities must be abandoned. And lastly, all stakeholders must face up to the complex reality of change processes.
Toward a solution
The paper suggests changes at several levels. To create the right ethos government must set the proper tone both through policies and legislation that addresses the broader issues related to the needs and equity of society such as care giver support, the minimum wage and working conditions and terms of employment. While basic principles must be articulated, freedom to experiment and innovate must be encouraged rather than constrained.
In the workplace, persistent myths and outdated assumptions about ideal employees need to be tackled head on. Right now those seen as the most committed and effective workers are also the most dysfunctional, obsessively ambitious or willing to sacrifice their personal life. The workplace talks balance but acts workaholic. This must change or nothing will happen. It must also be recognized that workers and employers have separate agendas but these need not be mutually exclusive. Tradeoffs are possible that can satisfy both sides. Serious attempts must be made to find them. Policies that respect both personal life and workplace effectiveness are possible, but we must do more to discover and implement them.
All together now
In the end, the paper’s authors provide a good discussion of the problem but fail to provide any detailed solutions. This is to be expected – there are no easy or quick answers to these complex issues. But building awareness of the problem and recognition of its significant societal costs – burnout, health problems and social discord in the developed world and inequity and poverty in the developing one – is an essential first step in the right direction. But more must be done. It will be slow to happen however until businesses, governments, communities and individuals join efforts to make paid work and personal life harmonization a top priority for all.
Are you experiencing a serious imbalance between paid work and your personal life? If so, is your organization helping you to cope with it or making it worse? Please e-mail Tony DiRomualdo at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your experiences and perspectives.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.