The Work-Life Balance Dilemma

The work-life balance has been at the forefront of many employers and employees alike for a good number of years as the scales have perceived to have been tilted too far in favour of the employer and business needs. It is also perceived that actually striking a proper balance from both perspectives cannot become a reality particularly easy without a change of mind-set from the business perspective. However, understanding the reasons behind the issues is quite simple to grasp.

Approximately 30 years ago, the working environment in developed countries such as the United states and United Kingdom saw quite a radical change in the lifestyles of individuals and business alike as entrepreneurialism was encouraged by the governments of the day, especially in the United Kingdom, where government activities such as utility services and rail networks also entered in to private ownership for the first time in many decades. It was a change that reduced government spending on wasted resources that saw enormous inefficiencies and placed the roles in to the hands of a new breed of entrepreneur.

What evolved from this change soon became the normal across the world, both the good aspects and the bad, the bad being the work-life balance seeing an equally radical in change. Businesses need to operate as efficiently as possible to compete and maximise profits, and this is the main driver behind the imbalanced that has been created. One of the reasons behind privatisation was to lower business costs, while increasing productivity and reducing the cost to consumers. The average business model, regardless of its location in the world, now operates to a very similar level, which places pressures on the business from top to bottom, throughout the organisation. Directors, Chief Executives and senior management are responsible for ensuring maximum productivity and profits, while the workforce and junior management are responsible for production as close to 100% as possible, in many cases with the possibility of redundancy or employment termination if performance criteria is not realised.

What also evolved was the increase in living standards, and as wages increased, so did the cost of living, including housing, both private ownership and rented accommodation. In turn, the previous family structure of the man going to work while the woman raised the children at home became consigned to history. Job creation opened opportunities for women in the workplace and many homes now have two full-time working adults making the contribution to the household, pushing living standards even higher, to the point where losing one of the incomes could spell disaster for the household. I am not suggesting that employers have exploited this situation but some businesses could be accused of exactly that, as they heap pressure on their employees to produce more, even if this means working longer hours for no additional income. It is not just the lowly employees that experience this action though. Middle and junior management are all under similar pressures to deliver, as per the wish of company shareholders.

The word that is often used to describe such business models is Capitalism, a system where the rich get richer and the poorer (normally employees) either get poorer or never really see any significant change to their life in terms of financial reward. This has brought about a number of scenarios in the workplace.

• Employees that have become willing to work long hours to earn additional income to either support the family or have funds for a holiday or special occasion.
• Two parent families working, but not always working the same hours. It is quite common for one parent to be working during the day while the other in the evening or through the night – just to pay the household bills.
• Employees that are willing to travel away from their town of city to find employment that meets the financial rewards they seek. However, this often entails staying away from the family home during the week or long commuting from the work place to home, consuming many hours every week and further tipping the work-life scales.
• Employees that feel obliged, or under pressure to work away on behalf of a business.

The knock on effect from each of these scenarios is that employees face spending more time with work related issues than they do with individual activities, hobbies or family life. In the cases of family life, there is little doubt that this work/life imbalance has contributed to a steep rise in divorce rates across the world, and for want of a better term, this imbalance is becoming somewhat of a disease in society. Another effect that is largely brought on by family pressures and/or marital breakdowns is in an individual’s health. Sustained levels of stress are not conducive to optimal performance in the workplace and the worst scenario is dealing with employees that are clinically depressed due to the high stress levels.

So far, much of what has been covered has been related to Europe but be aware that the same work/life imbalance also exists in India, and as the country pushes forward in to the global marketplace, the current trend of working hours dominating many lifestyles, is in all likelihood going to continue and probably gather pace until the same “disease” grips the country, unless India businesses and business leaders learn from the mistakes made in the west.

What is the solution to the work/life balance issue?
In the west, it would appear that the issue is not likely to fade away very quickly as most business models have little tolerance to steer in another direction. However, young Indians, looking to undertake management roles need to be aware of the effects of a work/life balance if the scales are tipped too far in either direction. Not only do they need to be aware, they will need to address the issue in their own working environment, to create an acceptable balance for all concerned.

The balance between the professional workplace and a content employee in a stable home environment cannot be stressed too highly, the balance is critical to maximise performance levels throughout an organisation, which in turn will reap the long term benefits.

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