Battle in Print: Some myths of the ‘Work-Life Balance’ discussion

Para Mullan, 14 December 2009

With the impact of the financial crash having spread to all parts of the economy, most people today are concerned about the actuality or threat of unemployment. However whilst many worry about not having a job, there are some who continue to argue for shifting the work-life balance more away from ‘work’ and in favour of ‘life’.  In a speech to the Trades Union Congress, the Archbishop of Canterbury argued against the way that ‘companies have entrenched a working culture that undermines the family’ (1). In October 2009, Cristina Odone from the Centre for Policy Studies took a similar perspective when she celerated the outcome of a YouGov poll about working women and men: only 12% of mothers wanted to work full time and 31% did not want to work at all. Furthermore the survey showed that a ‘whopping 28% of men working full time don’t want to’ (2). This poll was quickly followed by an Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report that suggested that most working fathers want to spend more time with their children. The EHRC ‘Fathers, Family and Work’ report aims to re-balance the way that the work-life balance debate has usually focused on working mums (3). Whilst mums and dads apparently fight over rights to be at home rather than at work, it was recently reported that employees are using swine flu as an excuse for throwing a Monday morning ‘sickie’ so unappealing do people find work these days (4).  One journalist went so far as to question if we are still living in the Victorian era when it comes to the working environment: long hours and harsh working conditions.

The European Quality of Life Index compiled by price comparison site echoes this view. It says that we Britons endure longer working hours with fewer holidays and a higher cost of living than others in Europe. Although we may earn more than our European counterparts we do not enjoy a better quality of life (5). It is interesting that this discussion is happening in the context of increasing unemployment and a fear by many that their jobs are at stake.  Does the anxiety about having a job not push this work-life balance discussion into the background for most people?  Or are all these commentators and polls still on the button in pointing the finger of reproach at Work and arguing that we need a different work-life balance in favour of more leisure time?  To address these big questions, there are a few myths about modern work that are worth exploring here.

The myth of the worsening working environment

The first myth underlying the current discussion is the assumption that we are all unhappy at work because of the worsening working environment. The reality is that over the last few decades, working conditions have improved for us. John Philpott, Director of Public Policy and Chief Economist of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), argues that there been much ‘improvement in most objective measures of job quality such as growth in real earnings and reductions in hours of work, aided by improvements in basic employment rights such as the introduction of the national minimum wage and management practices that consist of things like creative job design, continuous appraisal and autonomous or semi-autonomous team working’ (6).  Writing in a similar vein, Professor JR Shackleton, Professor of Economics and Dean of the Business at the University of East London makes the following points: ‘Pay averages, in real terms, three times what it was half a century ago. We work fewer hours and have longer holidays. Our jobs are less dangerous, less dirty and less noisy. Far more of us (55%) are in white collar, managerial and professional occupations than 50 years ago (30%). … Discrimination and harassment are illegal (7).” The idea that working conditions are worse than ever clearly does not hold up against the historical comparisons.

The myth of the long hour’s culture

Another common assumption of the ‘stay at home brigade’ is that we are working longer hours than before and as a result find work onerous. Whilst there will always be people who work long hours, average working hours have in fact declined. A century ago people in Britain worked more than 50 hours a week according to the ONS, but by 2008 full time workers averaged 37 hours a week (8).

However the perception that we work long hours persists. This could be due to the fact that most households have two people working. Across the OECD countries, the proportion of two adult families working more than a total of 60 weekly hours rose from 37% in 1985 to 47% in 2002 (9). This can give working couples the sense that their lives are consumed by working and that there is no time for themselves. This can be seen in formal surveys of individuals: for example, in successive time-use surveys the proportion of Americans reporting that they ‘always feel rushed’ rose from 24% in 1965 to 38% in 1992 (10).

This perception is further heightened for people with children. Most parents would be the first to admit that their weekends are totally consumed by their children’s activities whether it is taking them to ballet on a Saturday morning or for practise at the football pitch or to other childrens’ parties. Meanwhile during the working week there are parent teacher meetings to attend. All in all most parents are busy individuals, juggling work and home. This sense of ‘being busy’ all the time can easily be refracted to the workplace when questioned about working hours.

The myth of intensified stress at work

Whilst it is difficult to contest the facts about the improving physical environment at work, many would still assert that our mental state suffers as a result of being at work. It is a widely shared presumption that work is more stressful these days. It is argued that mental illness is rising, costing the economy about 13.5 million working days a year compared with 12.9 million at the peak of the ‘winter of discontent’ (11). One explanation for this rise in stress has been the introduction of new technology.  For example, employment researcher Dr Bernard Casey argues: ‘Computers mean they can be monitored more and made to work to tighter deadlines which can take its toll’ (12). Dr Casey goes on to say that these levels of stress mean more absenteeism and people leaving the workforce through mental illness. 

You only have to consider how call centre employees are monitored to recognise that there is some truth to the idea of a greater ease of monitoring of work these days. However it does not follow that because of this, levels of mental illness are rising. One of the reasons the latter is the case is because the definition of what constitutes ‘mental illness’ has broadened so much that every ill-fated or sad experience of work has a tendency to be labelled as mental illness. Simon Wesseley, professor of psychiatry at Kings College London recently said that in his trade, for example, ‘states of sadness are now seen as depression, shyness has become a “social phobia” and all sorts of variations in childhood temperament, personality, emotions and behaviour have become characterised as diseases that need treatment’ (13). The therapeutic culture being described here, both in the workplace and in society in general, helps to reinforce the sense that work has become problematic.

Some factors that perpetuate the myths

It is worth reviewing some of the changes in society over the past generation to understand how these may have had an impact in how we experience our working life. At the level of politics, few would disagree that there is an absence of vision from our leaders. The discrediting of politicians is compounded by the fact that most solutions they put forward seem to be reactive and short-termist. This lack of longer-term vision and clear sense of direction also prevails in large parts of business. Most organisations are continuously re-organising themselves within the workplace. No sooner has one set of short-term policies and changes been introduced, than another follows. Management rarely lead with a clear strategic long term purpose. This produces uncertainty in the workplace. So even if employees are able to have their own discretion over what they do at work, a lack of clear leadership by management means employees will lack ‘the big picture’. This inevitably makes them feel less in control which in turns paves the way for feelings of greater anxiety and ‘stress’.

Aligned with this is the fact that our public activities have much narrowed over the decades.  Compared to earlier generations, our attachment to religious institutions, trade unions and other community-oriented bodies has declined. Individuation characterises our life. This undoubtedly has an impact in that work can appear to be the key constant social thing in our lives, so that it takes on an enormous responsibility for shaping one’s outlook and one’s identity. By default, work becomes the focus for interrogation. It is thus not surprising that it receives the onslaught of all our negative feelings, whether work-derived or more often not.


Whilst all work and no play is not a recipe for anyone’s good health, nor is the one-sided encouragement by many to ‘stay at home’, metaphorically and, for some, literally. When it comes down to it, most women, for example, would secretly admit that they would rather be at work than stay at home doing the domestic chores. They would prefer the need to juggle between all their tasks at home and work rather than be confined to the home. A campaign for affordable good quality childcare would serve a better purpose than all the advice that is given about changing the ‘work-life balance’. With unemployment set to increase, most people would prefer to have a job than stay at home and ‘enjoy a rebalanced life’.  If we feel coerced at work, let’s fight for better working conditions. If we think that management is not giving us vision and direction, why not be courageous and state this.  The answer is not to withdraw into the home.  Societies that look inwards and pontificate about leisure time, about feeling stressed and are negative about work will have a tendency to stagnate and decay. By all means let us try to relax more but let’s also have a sense of perspective that work, and the material and immaterial benefits that come from work, help us achieve a much fuller life as individuals.


Para Mullan is operations director at cScape Strategic Internet Services Ltd and a fellow member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development


1) Archbishop of Canterbury hits at City culture, James Boxell, Financial Times, 17 November, 2009
2) What women and want and how they can get it, Cristina Odone, Centre for Policy Studies, September 2009
3) The Fathers, Family and Work Report [PDF], October 2009, EHRC
4) Flu rise points to Monday ‘sickies’, Andrew Jack, Financial Times 3 September 2009
5)  Why money doesn’t buy you happiness in UK, Aidan Radnedge, Metro, 12 October 2009
6) Advancing opportunity: the future of good work, The Smith Institute, April 2009
7) ibid
8) Office for National Statistics (2009) Labour Force Survey
9) Demanding Work, Francis Green, Princeton University Press, 2006
10) ibid
11) Stress costs more working days to be lost than 1970s strikes, Daily Mail, 24 June 2009
12) ibid
13) Britain: the incapacity capital of Europe, Mick Hume, spiked, 28 June 2008

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