Why the concept of work-life balance still alludes us
The way we approach work is significantly impacted by the national culture towards working. Factors such as law, religion, and traditional customs shape these cultures in different countries. Scandinavian countries tend to work shorter hours – evidenced in Sweden’s trialing of six-hour days. And traditionally, Asian countries and American nations put in the longest shifts. And while the idea of a healthy work-life balance is being embraced more and more, it begs the question: are we, as organizations, being flexible enough?
When it comes to exerting flexibility in the workplace, affluent countries mainly in northern Europe lead the way. Despite this, the UK and the U.S. consistently fall behind our Scandinavian counterparts. With chronic stress as one of the most common health issues in the workplace, and the risk of it leading to chronic aches and pains and heart problems as well as its negative impact on mental health, why are we slow to adopt new ways of working?
Of course, it’s easier for some countries to lead in flexibility than others. The Netherlands, for example, has a right to flexible working which protects the employee far more than in other countries. Their average working week is 32 hours, and the Dutch are very much encouraged to combine telework, flexitime and working from home to fulfill that obligation.
(It’s important to add here that the UK also has a right to flexible working, but with this, employers also have a right to refuse flexible working requests. The difference is that the Dutch have more laws to protect the employee’s rights to work in a way that suits them.)
Happiness: the key to business success
But the Netherlands is relatively small, to the point that one could feasibly commute to any destination within the country without much trouble. So, a flexible approach to work is going to be easier to introduce than in a bigger country. The Dutch authorities are also particularly keen for a flexible work culture as it avoids the inevitable congestion problems that would occur if everyone worked on a 9 to 5 schedule.
However, the Netherlands does recognize the importance of self-care too and there is a great emphasis on is the importance of using time outside of work well. Spending time with family, outdoors and on personal wellbeing is seen as necessary as working hard, both contributing to the balance that is needed for physical and mental health.
How important is flexibility in the workplace?
While its size is no match for the bigger complexities of a country like North America, if we use the Netherlands as a model of flexibility, we can see from data that the Dutch population are one of the most productive people in industrialized countries.
The Dutch model proves that productivity comes out of balance, but there are a lot more benefits to come out of introducing flexible working policies in the workplace.
Broader talent pool – with the borderless office and advances in technology, your hiring pool is global. And organizations are going out of their way to make working at their company look as attractive as possible to secure the best talent. The most effective way of doing this is by offering a host of benefits that will make the employee’s life more comfortable – and of course, offering flexibility is one of the biggest perks.
Morale – research has shown that those workplaces who offer flexibility have lower levels of absenteeism and staff turnover. Employees in organizations who practice proper levels of work-life balance boast more engagement and higher levels of productivity. The reason for this? Employees have more control, and when they are given trust and a degree of autonomy, personal investment in the workplace grows.
Stress reduction – stress is one of the most common work-related illnesses and has the potential to lead to more severe issues. Studies show that flexible work arrangements reduce stress – because workers feel like they can fit work-related responsibilities into their broader lives. This leads to less stress and burnout.
Happiness: the key to business success
Work/life balance – needless to say, greater flexibility in work allows a better work/life balance – the benefits of which cannot be understated. Employees who have more time to focus on learning, family, dependents, religious observances or personal well-being have a greater sense of ownership, responsibility, and control over their working lives. They also have the energy to give more to their job role.
Builds trust and commitment – the traditional employer-employee relationship is changing, and workers now have more power over where they work and for how long. This means organizations need to work hard to strengthen the commitment of their staff. By allowing them flexibility, you are handing your workforce a certain degree of trust and fostering an employee’s sense of value over their position in the workplace.
Why are some countries more open to flexibility than others?
There is a whole range of reasons why a country may be more likely to promote flexible working policies than others. As we’ve seen, the size and infrastructure of the Netherlands make different forms of working possible. But in other countries, there are more ingrained customs and traditions that mean working doesn’t take over the majority of a person’s waking hours. In Sweden, for example, there is the traditional custom of ‘fika’ where people break twice a day to enjoy pastries and coffee with friends or family. There is an emphasis on taking a pause, refreshing the brain and strengthening friendships. In other countries like Spain, siesta is still widely practiced as a way of avoiding the hottest hours of the day.
In Asian cultures, there is a strong focus on working to make a living, and the working hours in the corporate world in Asia are some of the longest in the world. In a study carried out by Expert Market in 2016, the ten lowest work-life balance cities included Jakarta, Dubai, Bangkok, and Mumbai with over 2,000 hours per year, as opposed to 1,600 hours in those cities which had the best work-life balance.
Why are we working like crazy?
But it’s not just global corporate cities which have eye-watering stats – there is an underlying belief in offices across the world that working excessively is a positive thing.
While societies have come to place huge value on working long hours – the long-term impact of this should be addressed more. Many people put the utmost importance on giving everything to their work or being “married to their career” – and other areas of life suffer, namely family, relations, friendships and health.
Excessive work can cause a person’s physical and mental health to suffer – Research by University College London in 2015 found that those who work more than 55 hours a week have a 33% increased risk of stroke compared with those who work a 35- to 40-hour week. They also have a 13% increased risk of coronary heart disease.
Despite this, many workplaces promote excessive working ethos, where it is considered normal to work through breaks and consistently do overtime. In some organizations, particularly healthcare environments, a lot of the work is reactive, and therefore scheduling adequate breaks is difficult.
Of course, with 2008’s global economic crash still ringing in many workers’ ears, there is an acute sense of job insecurity. And aside from the financial climate, the growing globalization of the workplace and an increasingly competitive job market, there is a sense of having to work excessively to prove your worth.
Happiness: the key to business success
How can you improve ‘flexibility’ in your workplace?
What flexibility means depends on the nature of your workplace. But for most, it’s the idea of being able to work at a time and place that suits the employee, rather than the traditional restrictions of nine to five. Trial and error, initiatives and a culture change can all be used to see what works within your organization. But most find that careful planning can help create a culture where flexibility is not seen as an allowance in exceptional circumstances, but as something to practice daily by the entire workforce as they see fit.
Creating a work environment that prioritizes the work-life balance can mean a more productive, healthier workforce. But how do you break from the more traditional office restrictions to a more agile working environment? You start by looking at what your workforce needs, what they are struggling with and how you can make them be at their most efficient without any risk of burning out.
Offer the same flexibility to everyone: While offering staggered start and finishing times or remote working is an obvious benefit to parents who battle the school run, it shouldn’t be exclusive to those with children. Offering this to the entire workforce encourages flexibility to be part of the workplace culture.
Promote pre- or post-work activities: whether it’s a running club, work socials or discounted gym membership, it’s essential for the organization to be seen as leading this flexible approach. Often people need to be reminded of self-care and encouraging this goes some way to instilling the adoption of activities and pastimes that can aid mental health and improve all-around well-being.
Invest in the right tech: the rise in mobile and smart devices together with the cloud has seen a dramatic surge in remote working. For some employees, who may struggle to work in a busy office or who have a long commute, remote working is a godsend. It can be something that is offered sporadically or is a permanent fixture on some roles, with the flexibility of working in-house from time to time.