Culture of overwork overshadows better, more balanced lives

Time to clock off but will you still be at work? Johninnit

We often talk about work-life balance but for most of us it might be more appropriately called work-life imbalance. The recent sad death of a Merrill Lynch intern sparked the company to review working conditions for junior staff over claims he had worked overly long hours.

Unfortunately a culture of overwork and immense pressure to be present in the workplace isn’t unique to just financial institutions. Overworking is having a profound impact on the well-being of not only working people, but their families - and perhaps even more insidiously, the social and natural environments on which we depend for a healthy life.

In the UK, along with many other market economies, the paid worker is considered as a resource whose time and energy is used to best effect in a work environment. Various work-life balance initiatives, such as more flexible working, in theory purport to be a win-win scenario for both employees and employers by reducing conflict between paid work and home and caring commitments and promoting a more healthy, satisfied workforce.

But is this enough? In theory it is and it’s a start. But in reality, many initiatives still require individual employees to be present in the workplace as and when employers require them to meet organisational targets. This culture of “presenteeism” along with work intensification frequently pressures the employee to spend more time at work.

This means a worker still has to co-ordinate his or her own home and caring responsibilities and/or personal well-being around workplace demands in order to get paid work.

In a society that promotes productivity and paid work to the extent we do, this may not seem too much of a crime. But it should challenge us to consider a value system that places family commitments, social relationships, community living and worker well-being as entirely secondary to the efficiency of the paid workplace.

My own research in the UK health and social care sectors has shown that egalitarian models of work-life balance and concern with employee well-being are sadly absent, and the pressures on workers to be physically present in the workplace can cause profound family disruption and ongoing ill-health for many.

Unfortunately these findings are not unusual. A recent European-wide survey by the New Economics Foundation think tank found that that well-being at work was low in the UK, which came 15th out of 22 other European countries. The survey also showed low levels of social and personal well-being among UK respondents, and linked all of these findings to high levels of work-life imbalance caused through the pressures of paid work. While the study didn’t delve into why countries such as Cyprus and the Netherlands ranked far more highly, it did indicate that the UK could do better when it comes to personal well-being at work.

Reports from the Mental Health Foundation in 2003 were even more damning and identified relationship breakdowns, loss of friendships and poor connections with children and families as specifically caused by the stress and pressures from a culture of long hours.

Being and doing

While identifying that there’s much more to well-being through a good work-life balance than just an absence of conflict between paid work and the rest of our lives, there’s surprisingly little thought given to wider issues such as an increasing trend in modern life towards constant busyness and to be actively subsumed in “doing” activities all of the time.

These kinds of activities, which include obligatory tasks such as paid work and domestic chores as well as pursuits like watching TV, playing computer games, shopping or sports, promote a sense of purpose, productivity and fulfilment that are essential. But they do need to balanced with more restful, reflexive or “being” types of activities if a sense of well-being is to be fully appreciated.

“Being” pursuits are marked as freely chosen activities that are enjoyable and carried out for their own sake, without necessarily having either financial or social gain. By definition these tend to be personally meaningful and meet aesthetic needs, and might include participating in creative pursuits or connecting with nature by walking in the countryside, listening to the dawn chorus or just sitting on the beach and smelling the sea.

These kinds of activities promote well-being and provide a sense of connection with our environment but they are often sadly absent in daily life (or ignored), lost to the more productive and busy elements. A proper work-life balance does mean avoiding conflict between work and home and a feeling that we’re dangerously juggling the two but it also means finding some space to re-connect and unwind which, in the end, will lead to a more efficient and engaged workforce.

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