Work-life balance was a concept first popularised by the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1980’s highlighting the importance of flexible work schedules and family friendly policies for the first time. Since then, the term has evolved to describe a state of equilibrium where a person (of any gender) equally prioritises the demands of their career and the demands of their personal life.
Work-life balance has dominated the health and wellbeing agenda for decades and is still regarded as an essential ingredient for reducing stress and preventing workplace burnout. Indeed, even during the current Covid pandemic, the elusive work-life balance has widely been cited as part of the solution in adopting successful homeworking practices.
However, the problem with the word balance is that it is an unhelpful metaphor for describing our modern disrupted lives, that are frequently complex, inter-connected and messy. The dictionary definition of balance as an “even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady”, suggests that for the majority of us, we will spend almost all our time being out of balance or unbalanced as work life and home life collide, interrupt, blur and disrupt each other!
As many businesses struggle with the management challenges of partial returns to the workplace, un-furloughing and redundancies, alongside safety measures and flexible working requests, perhaps it’s time to rethink the work-life balance terminology? Many professionals have been calling for the removal of boundaries between work and life, favouring a more integrated or ‘blended’ approach. Author and self-confessed workaholic, Ariana Huffington, declared her disillusionment with work-life balance back in 2015, favouring a wellness-centred integration between work and non-work life. Although removing ‘balance’ from work-life might take off some of the pressure in reaching an unattainable goal, embracing a work-life blend still requires practice and effort to avoid it becoming another millstone to endure. And, what about work/life and happiness, as suggested in Claire Fox’s book Work Life Symbiosis, whereby work and life should try and be mutually beneficial?
This is where leading by example is going to be so important for organisations. Proactive businesses should be questioning their productivity measures and pay more attention to the concept of ‘meaningful’ work, incorporating new elements like energy, purpose and engagement, rather than just time and presence. They will need to recognise that the psychological contract they have with their people may have shifted and worker goodwill can’t be taken for granted. This in turn will shine a light on management approaches that favour facilitation and support rather than command and control.
And, regardless of organisational size or sector, businesses need to move towards a more human-centric management approach to ensure people challenges are dealt with on a case-by-case basis so that issues, such as care responsibilities, wellness and health, can be handled sensitively and fairly, without reverting to the safety net of a blanket ‘no’.
1. Create a common sense of purpose
Define the organisation’s purpose, why it matters and why each job matters, then communicate this to all stakeholders, especially employees and workers.
2. Challenge the status quo
Look at new ways of doing things differently, such as providing more autonomy over work, measuring outputs rather than inputs, creating alternative meeting and co-working spaces to aid collaboration, creativity and idea sharing. Champion wellbeing and psychological safety by providing planned and integrated initiatives regarding health, exercise and nutrition.
3. Be kind
Foster a culture of kindness, encouraging all people to treat each other with kindness, respect and dignity in interactions both inside and outside the business as well as actively supporting community volunteering and charitable endeavours.
4. Integrate flexibility
Explore ways to accommodate varied work patterns across different teams and over different timeframes, including phased returns to work, hybrid working patterns that combine onsite and offsite working and introducing flexibility for non-office workers. Support the CIPD’s Flex From 1st Campaign – encouraging flexible work requests to be provided as a day one right and being made more accessible to lower paid workers. Prepare to trial these new ways of working with people.
5. Re-evaluate benefits
Provide a broad mix of benefits to suit a wide range of people with differing requirements and motivations, rather than trying to offer a single uniform benefits package. Look for creative and cost-effective ways to provide health and wellbeing support through the provision of counselling, health assessments and health-specific benefits. Identify different equipment and technology requirements when differentiating between enforced homeworking and discretionary homeworking.
6. Evolve the process
Keep communicating and seeking feedback from people, review progress and be prepared to make mistakes along the way.
These are just starting points, but they show a variety of ideas that prioritise people and recognise their needs as individuals so that they are far more likely to bring their whole selves to work, to be engaged, committed and productive!
Work-Life Blend will only be successful if organisations embrace people-led strategies that encourage their workers to interact, communicate and contribute to their work, whilst being respected and supported to create their own unique Life-Blend inside and outside of work.