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Work-life balance utopia: is this the real life or is this just fantasy?

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The work-life balance debate is nothing new. But with increasingly demanding careers and our ‘always on’ culture of smartphones and tablets, is it really possible? Can we really have it all? Or, are we all destined to wobble our way along a tightrope of increased working hours and soaring stress levels?

Constantly plugged in? What’s the cost?

Having worked at the coalface of recruitment for almost 30 years. I’d like to think I’m well placed to review this subject. I didn’t take a holiday for 12 years for fear of not billing. My candidates and clients would call me during the evenings and at weekends and I would readily jump. I even left a funeral to take a call from a client. It’s fair to say my balance was way out of whack! At the time I saw this as my choice. I was hungry for success and desperate to do the best possible job I could for my employer, my clients and my candidates. And, whilst I definitely wouldn’t want to be doing it now, I was full of energy, I wasn’t juggling family commitments and I had a complete ball in the process. But what was the real cost of my work-work balance? What impact on my health, relationships and life choices did my overwork habit have?

Bad for employees

With a recent survey showing that 84% of us work beyond our contracted hours, it seems that for many of us overworking has simply become the norm. A quick Google search however and you’ll find an array of reports warning us of the many dangers of chronic overworking. Never clock off? High stress levels, impaired mental wellbeing, lack of sleep, unhealthy eating, lack of exercise, heavy drinking, type 2 diabetes and even an increased risk of heart problems are all on your list of potentials. A pretty compelling case for loosing the laptop and heading home on time I’d say. And that’s before we’ve added in the detrimental effect on your relationships with friends and family!

Bad for business

With the same report finding that 75% of people feel obligated to work longer hours, most without compensation, surely the business benefit is a big one? Not the case. A recent study from Boston University actually found that mangers could not differentiate between the output of employees working 80 hours per week and those who simply pretended. Add to this lack of productivity an increase in absenteeism, high staff turnover and rising health insurance costs and these crazy hours it seems are having a pretty negative impact on our bottom line. Pile on the stress and exhaustion, associated with overworking, and you’ve also bagged yourself a serious dose of emotional outbursts, miscommunications, poor decisions, mistakes and general lack of focus. Duvet day anyone?

Time to break the overwork habit

Despite all the facts in favour of balance, it’s so easy to get caught up in a never-ending cycle of late nights and early starts. We simply stop noticing and it simply becomes what we do. It’s easy to feel pressured by everyone around us who is working late and feel guilty when the boss checks his watch as we walk out the door at our contracted leaving time. We’ve all become programmed to overwork and to expect others to do the same. And with our ever-connected world it’s more difficult than ever to break the habit. But why would any of us want to perpetuate this formula for diminished returns? Surely our health, happiness and businesses are worth more. It’s time to break the habit!

Invest in your assets

In my crazy hours career I failed to realise what an asset I was to the business. I missed the memo that told me how much they needed me and it’s only with hindsight that I now see what a position of power I was actually in. If only I’d taken the time to take a breath and evaluate whether I really needed to be that available. If I’d sometimes said ‘no’ would my success look any different? If we are all to break the overwork habit and regain some sense of balance surely it starts with our sense of value and where we place it. We need to realise our own value, that of our employees and of our colleagues. We are all assets and we all need careful investment if we are to flourish!

Benefits of balance

I am now lucky enough to be working in a business where balance is big. We work hard but we all set boundaries to make sure we are at our best both at work and at home. And luckily others have started to listen too. The last 10 years has seen a huge increase in the number of employers recognising the importance of investing in workplace wellbeing. 2016 saw People Management publish the results of one of the largest global workplace surveys of its kind, in which 83% stated that adopting flexible working had resulted in improved productivity. Results also showed that 61% said it helped to increase company profits and 58% agreed that flexible working policies had a positive impact on reputation. The report, titled ‘Flexible: Friend or Foe?’ found that SMEs in particular had been overwhelmingly convinced about the business benefits of flexible working.

Skeptics and stereotypes (Why isn’t everyone listening?)

This is all great stuff, but we’ve still got a way to go. Back in 2013, joint research by Vodafone and RSA concluded that UK businesses could benefit from cost reductions and productivity gains of £8.1 billion simply by optimising their approach to flexible working. The same research however also revealed that 20% of organisations had not yet implemented such a policy. Stubbornly ingrained stereotypes about home working remain a barrier for many, with 22% believing that employees would not work as hard if allowed to adopt flexible working patterns and technologies. Other concerns include unfair distribution of work and friction between flexible and non-flexible employees, a lack of traditional office culture and a weakened team spirit.

Get your balance on!

A shift in culture is always difficult, we are all creatures of habit and this new way of thinking will take time.

I have plenty of friends who are still seriously struggling to juggle children, elderly parents, partners, animals and all the other aspects of modern life we deal with on top our day jobs. There’s only so long we can keep going without burning out and becoming ill. We all know it and yet the cycle continues. The only way we can generate a wave of change is together. Employee or employer, we have a responsibility to ourselves and to each other. Together we can grow positive work places where nobody feels guilty about leaving on time. In fact lets encourage each other to go home and turn off distractions. We will all be rewarded in the long term; our health will benefit, our happiness will soar and our businesses will thank us too.

Ready to tame the wobble and big up the balance? I’d love to hear your workplace wellbeing tactics.

Thanks for reading, Tracey

Haig & Co

Unit 2, Liberty Place,
Sheepcote Street,
Birmingham, B16 8AE

0121 796 0150
[email protected]