By Professor Craig Jackson – Professor of Occupational Health Psychology 

Aristotle once observed that “All work distracts and absorbs the mind”. He had a point. Like it or not, our job is the single biggest occupier of our time on this planet, after sleeping. So it makes sense then to try and get this whole work-thing sorted.

National Work-Life Week is not one of those gimmicky “national-days” that everyone is so cynical and jaded about. This week, promoted by Working Families (the UK’s leading work-life balance organisation that has been running for nearly forty years) is designed to help working parents, carers and their employers to find better ways to balance both working and domestic lives.

While I am often slightly cynical myself about the quest of many workers to achieve (happiness through) “work-life balance” I do believe that awareness-raising weeks such as this should be used by many of us to ask questions about the way we do our work, and how we could do it in a way that benefits all parties to the maximum. None of us should be complacent about how our work is arranged and organised – even if we are lucky enough to be in a clean job that is flexible and gives us plenty of freedom and autonomy – and there is nothing to lose by questioning if it could be improved. That I am writing this article on a swanky, work-provided Macbook (nice) while sitting on my sofa (also nice) at 9:10pm on a Tuesday night (not so nice) is evidence enough that we can always consider improving our working arrangements and the amount of time we allow it to take up.

Although many workplaces and employers would view themselves as being “flexible” by often making “reasonable adjustments” to accommodate employees who may need special arrangements or support at work, it is worth asking if more flexibility can be found. Times change, needs differ, and employee values also evolve. Management understanding and flexibility are two factors that many graduate employees consistently rate as being just as important as good salaries and promotion-opportunities.

Ask yourself some questions

This week is a good time for both employers and employees to ask several questions about the way work is done within their company:

Employers:

  • are workplace policies up to date and relevant;
  • do you promote role models and cases of good working practices;
  • do managers vocally give support to work-life balance issues;
  • are there enough motivational, training and educational opportunities for employees;
  • can community volunteering schemes be accessed; can employees bring their children to work during holiday periods;
  • are employees given flexibility over healthcare issues and medical appointments;
  • can occupational health services be used to promote employee health;
  • can tertiary healthcare (such as massages, hypnotherapy or reflexology) be accessed to combat the effects of stress or fatigue.

As employees, what things about our jobs and the working arrangements we have would we change about the way we work? Also what things can we not change, and what things do we want to keep the same that are important to us? I’d hazard a guess that the top half of many peoples’ lists of things they’d like to change or improve in their jobs would include emails, unreliable technology, commuting, impossible workloads, unfair workload allocation, inflexible bosses, bullying, lazy colleagues, and rudeness from others. Change can be effected and instigated but sources of unhappiness or displeasure at work need to be identified and called out before anything can be improved.

We work too many hours

One of the issues I campaign most about as a psychologist is that of UK working hours. The UK workforce still has the highest mean number of full-time working hours of any European country. As a country we work too many hours – and we also rely on the culture of unpaid overtime and the willingness of millions of employees to work outside of the 9-5 for free, on a regular basis. Without the culture of unpaid overtime, many white-collar sectors would struggle to compete. Working unpaid overtime is now expected of workers in countless organisations, and technological advances facilitate this. It is no coincidence that the rise of email in the 1990s tied in with when the stress-epidemic began. E-technology facilitates and enables excessive working – on countless smartphones and tablets. The workplace pillow-email continues to exist. I have also maintained that since the trading laws were relaxed in the 1990s, millions of people in the retail sector in the UK have felt the effects of the shopping culture, and that a suitable remedy would be for companies to voluntarily bring back “half-day closing” for one day each week. It would give workers a break, and allow them to do other beneficial things in their lives, and any lost “revenue” that may occur as a result would easily be saved by fewer workers needing to access the NHS and their GPs for countless work-related / workload psychosocial issues such as stress. A small number of companies are already piloting such schemes and the health benefits and economic benefits are there to be observed.

An interesting feature of the National Work-Life Week is the “Go Home on Time Day” pledge, taking place today – Wednesday 24th September. As a token exercise it may just encourage some workers to think more carefully about what they could be doing if they were to leave work on time, which might lead to longer-term behavioural changes. Organisations will hopefully encourage their workers to take part and use it as a springboard towards more proactive activities that will increase worker satisfaction, health, and loyalty to the company.

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Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University
Craig Jackson

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