How much balance is there between your work-life and family-life?

In this blog, originally published at The Conversation, WAF Project Principal Investigator, Heejung Chung, explores European Survey data on work-life balance. 

This week celebrates the 3rd  annual National Work-Life Week in the UK, organised by WAF Project advisory board members Working Families.  It’s where both employers and workers are asked to think about their work-life balance and perhaps try to strike a balance, if only for a week.

But how are we doing in terms of work-life balance? To what extent do people in the UK feel like they are satisfied with the balance between their work and family life? Who feels more balance, why?  And, more importantly, what can be done to improve work-life balance for everyone?

In 2012, the European Social Survey asked, on of a scale from 0 (extremely unsatisfied) to 10 (extremely satisfied), “How satisfied are you with the balance between the time you spend on your paid work and the time you spend on other aspects of your life?” The average Brit answered just below 7 (6.8) – placing them smack in the middle of the 29 European countries in the survey.

However, when we look at other figures, it is actually quite surprising that most people say they are rather satisfied with the balance between work and life. In the 2010 European Social Survey, more than a quarter of Brits answered that they often or always worry about work when not working, a fifth say they often or always feel like their jobs prevent giving time to their partner or family, and almost a third of all people surveyed say they often or always feel too tired after work to enjoy things at home.  Just to give it a bit of perspective, only about a seventh Norwegians worry about work when not working and feel like their jobs prevent enjoying things at home, and only an eight of them feel that their work prevents them from giving time to their families. In other words, Brits are about twice as likely as Norwegians to feel various types of conflict between their work life and family life. It isn’t just the Norwegians but most of our Western European neighbours are doing better in striking a better balance between work and life.

So why exactly do people feel like their work life and family life are at conflict with one another?

Of course, people with children – especially young children – are those who are more likely to feel that their jobs are preventing time with their families but also feel like they are not able to give time to other things, including house work, due to the time and energy they spend at work. At first glance it seems like men are more likely to say that they feel conflict between their work and family life, but this is only due to the fact that men are more likely to spend more time at work and have demanding jobs. Many women who have had this high level of conflict change jobs or drop out of the market altogether, meaning those left in work are those who can handle it. When comparing men and women with similar job characteristics, women are the ones who feel more conflict.

However, the most important factors in explaining why workers feel that their work life and family life, or other aspects of life at are odds with one another are the number of hours spent at work and the demands faced at work. What is interesting is that it is not just your working hours, but your partner’s working hours that also impacts the amount of conflict you feel. In other words, when your partner is putting long hours in the office, and you are left to take care of the children and put dinner on the table, you start feeling like your own work may be a bit too much.

So what can we do? Obviously, government policies to reduce household demands – such as generous childcare provision – can be a good start to relieve parents of some of the load. The right to request flexible work has been extended to all workers, and this can help employees achieve a better work-life balance. However, this is only to an extent and not for everyone. When the general working conditions do not change, and when gender division of labour does not change, it cannot be the all-in-one solution to our problems.

There are other, more radical, proposals to change the way we work. For example, could shorter working hours be a solution? There are many who maintain that this will not only lead to better work life balance but a stronger and greener economy.

Work-family conflict leads not only to negative outcomes for one’s own mental and physical well-being. It can have devastating impact on one’s family, and can lead to problems for the company – such as low productivity and high levels of sickness, absenteeism – but also to societal issues, such as lower fertility rates or loss of human capital, due to people leaving the workforce. In the same ESS survey, when asked what is important when choosing a job, 85% of people replied that combining work and family responsibilities are important or very important.

It is time that we take these issues quite seriously, and think of real solutions.