What is work-life balance for your employees and how can employers spot the signs of employees having problems

As the UK marks National Work-Life Week (12-16 October), we have examined the issue of work-life balance in two blog posts: one looking to examine the issues and to help organisations and managers spot the signs that their colleagues may be struggling to get the balance right; and a second, which suggests some strategies, tips and ideas that could help both managers and employees to stay on the right track.

We see a vital role for employers, and those who support employers on the issue of health and wellbeing, to acknowledge the significant impact that work-life balance problems can have and to help provide the support and proactive, preventative workplace culture that can help employees to thrive.

Part one. Work-life balance: the problem

The Welsh textile manufacturer and social reformer, Robert Owen, declared in 1810 that the ideal work-life balance would be “eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest” (1), something he tried to adopt and support at his New Lanark Mill on the banks of the River Clyde. Fast forward 200 years and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (2), declared that UK workers spend on average around 38 hours a week at work, making for a roughly seven and a half hour working day. So far, so good?

In that case, why do we hear regularly about issues with work-life balance in the UK and find that a recent Mental Health Foundation survey (3) showed one third of respondents feel unhappy or very unhappy about the time they devote to work?

Where is it going wrong in UK workplaces? How can you spot if your employees are struggling to get the balance between work and home right? What are the signs of trouble?

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Work-life balance is a relative concept and one that is personal to every manager or employee. One size does not fit all. Each person needs to establish and define what is the right balance for them and not everyone will share the same philosophy in how to approach their work or have the same pressures and responsibilities in their lives. These outside work pressures are not just about employees who have families and caring responsibilities, but those who are, for example, committed in other ways outside of work, whether with active social lives, in community roles or simply because they value having time during the day to walk their dog as it helps them to stay healthy and happy.

As we unpack the issues around work-life balance, we see them fall into three main categories; boundaries, expectations and support.

Boundaries

It is the blurring of the lines between home and work which often causes the biggest concerns for employees, sometimes leading to a feeling that is too difficult for people to leave work at their desks, to switch off physically or mentally from emails and other messages, and hard to get a break from thinking about to-do lists, upcoming meetings or ongoing work challenges. That of course has become even more of an issue in the COVID era we are living through as so many people are having to work at home, making the physical separation between work and home even harder to achieve.

In ‘normal times’, these boundary concerns are often highlighted by behaviours like employees engaging in regular late night and weekend working and emailing, or them being in the office long hours, often with early starts and late finishes and with lunches always being eaten at their desks. Within the working day there can too often be little time made for any breaks - even short intervals for a walk around the office, some fresh air, a coffee pitstop or a protected 30-40 minute break for lunch.

Outside of the working day there is the temptation, too often accepted, to start working as soon as people wake up, reaching for their mobile device to check emails even before getting out of bed. People’s commute to the office can very often be an extension of work time when emails are tackled, papers reviewed for meetings or phone calls being made - not a few minutes to read the newspaper, turn the pages of a book or to listen to music or a podcast; using the time to recharge the batteries, getting ready for the day ahead.

As so often, technology is an enabler for so many positive things in society, including flexible working, allowing us to work from multiple locations - not just our offices and desks. But it can also be an enabler for not switching off and for 24/7 working or thinking. It is an ‘always on’ culture which has crept into many workplaces and can be contributed to by the easy availability of emails, tablets and a variety of convenient tools that make working from anywhere possible. With this powerful technology in the hands of nearly everyone in the workplace, it is more important than ever to have explicit strategies in place to ensure that employees can make sure they are not neglecting themselves, their home-lives and their health and wellbeing, at the expense of keeping one step ahead in the corporate career race and keeping on top of their inboxes and to do lists.

The human stories behind the unhappiness the Mental Health Foundation uncovered in their survey will be typically those of employees feeling they were simply working too many hours, being contacted when at home and trying to unwind and then struggling to be able to clearly identity when the working day started and ended. These unclear boundaries can lead people to feel that they can never get away from their work and that it can intrude into their home life, often causing stress, anxiety and in severe cases causing or contributing to serious mental health issues.

Expectations

When Robert Owen pioneered the eight-hour working day in the UK, it was typical for factories, mills and other workplaces to operate 24 hours a day and for employees to be expected to work between 10-15 hour shifts, six or seven days a week. We have clearly come a long way since then but there is a second issue for managers to be alive to in the modern workplace; that of expectations and the pressures that poorly-defined or poorly-communicated expectations can have on their teams and the people they manage.

Many employees now feel that, as we discussed earlier, the ability to be able to respond to emails and other work demands from the comfort of their mobile device means that people are under pressure to reply even when the email is received out of normal working hours - sometimes at weekends - and even when it is not urgent. It is so often a conversation that managers could but don’t have with their teams: setting out their own approach to work and what they expect from their employees, including expectations on responses to emails.

Having good quality, meaningful conversations about expectations is crucial and is so often absent from teams and line manager-employees relationship.

How often does a line manager sit down with a new team member and say: “this is how I like to work, the hours I keep, what I expect from you, what you can expect from me” in really practical terms. Sometimes managers and those in other senior roles will work late into the evening or at weekends as that is either the nature of their role or because it works for them but they don’t expect their teams to follow suit. The problem is that often they do not make that expectation clear.

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Support

Increasingly, organisations have been putting in place formal and informal support for their employees which could help them address concerns about work-life balance. This support can include flexible working policies, initiatives which encourage employees to access subsidised exercise or wellbeing activities, such as gym memberships, yoga classes and the like, and the provision of face-to-face and online mental health support, including that provided by SilverCloud.

The challenge for many employees is twofold. Firstly, they often do not know these support services are available and, secondly, employees will report they didn’t think the issues they were facing were serious enough or they were not worried enough to access the support available.

This is such a common issue in the workplace, where employees do not access support because they don’t feel sick enough. Here, the role of the line manager and the culture of the organisation is critical. We argue that by building a culture of wellbeing in the workplace, in which support is both available and discussed openly and regularly, with leadership figures acting as role models in both discussing work-life balance issues and sharing their own approaches and some tips and ideas, can be a game changer.

Employees are much more likely to engage with the issues of work-life balance and take action to make improvements in their lives, which has a positive effect on their performance, if they believe they will get the support from their employer.

Conclusions and next steps

Reducing the stigma of raising issues about your mental health and talking about issues related to work-life balance is critical in the workplace, but it needs to be a starting point and not the end game. Employers who invest in a culture that encourages positive, proactive and supportive discussions about boundaries and expectations - that is clear on the importance of every employee being committed to their work but equally committed to their home life and their wellbeing - encourages happier employees, reduces the costs of sickness absence due to poor mental health and drives high performance.

That same Mental Health Foundation survey cited earlier says that nearly two thirds of employees have experienced a negative effect from work on their personal life, including lack of personal development, physical and mental health problems, and poor relationships and poor home life (3).

There can be little doubt that we need to be having more frequent and more meaningful conversations in the workplace about work-life balance, what it means for every member of each team and how together we can support each other. Perhaps National Work-Life Week is the perfect time to start those conversations or build on ones already happening within your organisation.

For more current statistics around mental health, the stigma associated with it, the cost of poor mental wellbeing and what employers can do to tackle these issues, see our latest infographic here.

Download the Infographic

In the second blog post in this series, we will take a more detailed look at advice, tips and strategies that managers and organisations can deploy to support their teams and employees as they seek to improve their own work-life balance.

Footnotes

1 - https://www.indy100.com/article/8-hour-work-day-terrible-idea-studies-confirm-3-hour-work-day-8210066 

2- https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/docserver/5b43c728-en.pdf?expires=1601991094&id=id&accname=guest&checksum=13C5F80D5492AB34CD36201333B62D3F 

3 - https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/w/work-life-balance