It is one of the harsh realities of modern life that most of us are working harder than ever, especially so in the UK, where employees endure by far the longest working week in comparison to other European countries. On average we spend 43.9 hours at work, tendency rising. This in turn results in an over-stretched work force leading to an estimated 40 million work-days per year lost through stress related. Moreover the old psychological contract, where hard work was rewarded with a secure job for life, has all but disappeared since more and more people are on short-term contracts and lack the security of long-term employment.
Although traditional work structures seem to be dissolving, this has not necessarily resulted in more flexibility for the workers, as many employers are still reluctant to implement them before employees have 'proved their worth'. Hence our lives are characterised by a pronounced conflict between professional and private lives, since ever-longer working hours seem to leave us with less and less time for our interests, family and leisure time in general.
Nevertheless most of us aspire to have our work and personal sphere 'in sync' and balance has become the buzzword for the 90's generation. Thus in an ideal world, most people would like their output assessed by the results they achieve at work and not by the hours they spend slaving away at their desk, which in turn would leave them free to pursue their personal interests outside work. However only few employers have latched onto this and turned it into an advantage.
It is at this point where a key role for Occupational Psychology develops, not only with the assessment of the structure and implementation of flexible work models but also with the thorough study of factors underlying the Work/Life Balance. The study of work and family life is a relatively recent field, with only few studies having touched on how the respective effects of work and home life interact although early papers in the 1970s indicated the advantages of alternative work models.
A recent paper defined workplace flexibility as "the attention to the whole of the employee's life" and called for thorough investigation into a good fit between people's private and work roles. Moreover, it put forward the argument that helping to manage employee's Work/Life conflicts actually increases "psychological availability for work". Their conclusion is the concept of the "learning organisation", where more flexibly work arrangements will benefit the employer through more efficient recruitment, decrease in both staff turnover and absenteeism and last but not least an improved corporate image.
A large scale UK-based study since has found that managers feel to be working unjustifiably long hours and to be pushing their staff too hard. Only a relatively small percentage felt reasonably sure that they have achieved a balance in their lives and the majority indicated their preference for more flexible working hours. Nearly half perceived increased difficulties in balancing their work and personal life and well over half said pressure to perform at work left them less and less time for their personal life, making them feel that they are missing out. Although their findings were thorough and detailed, the analysis of their data was solely descriptive and no attempts were made to analyse any traits underlying the Work/Life Balance, which is where the present study 'picks it up'. A questionnaire was designed for the purpose of this study in order to test two predictions:
Despite the average time of almost two years with their respective company, the majority of participants seemed to have spent a relatively short time with their respective companies as more than half had been with their present employer for less than or exactly two years. Quite a substantial number though, 15.6 percent, had been working for their company between 10 and 20 years. Over half of the participants worked in relatively small companies employing between 10 and 100 employees. With regard to the definition of work level, the overriding majority, i.e. 44.4 percent, rated theirs as Managerial:
Graph 1 - Percentages for definitions of Work Level
The population came from a variety of different professional backgrounds. Sales and Marketing was the most frequently chosen work definition, followed by Specialist and Professional.
Almost three-quarters of the target population worked a 5 day week, with almost a quarter putting in an extra one or two days. Very few reported working part-time. Nearly half reported working 35-45 hours a week, with a sizeable number working 45 to 60 hours. More than 10 percent admitted to working on average more than 60 hours.
Most people felt that they had reasonable control over the hours they worked with nearly half percent stating that the hours they put in are mostly justifiable.
Preferences about the desired working week pattern were nearly evenly split between those favouring a 4-day/9 hr week and those favouring variable arrangements. A 5-day week with a seven hours workday was also a favoured option:
Graph 2 - Preferred Work Pattern
Nearly half reported to take time out occasionally to take care of private matters in the work place. Over 80 percent reported to be devoting between 15 minutes and 1 hour a week to them, with Social Matters being mainly involved.
By far and large, the sample population took relatively little time off for personal reasons in the previous year, with the overwhelming majority having taken less than four days. Of those who did take time off (since nearly 30 percent did not report to have done so), the majority reported to have taken this time as 'sick' leave.
On average, most people seemed to feel more committed to their company than the other way round. Regarding one's Workplace Support, Flexibility In Working and Respect were each chosen as the highest rank by an equal number of participants. For Job Satisfaction, Autonomy was ranked highest by the majority.
A large majority reported to have considered a career change:
Graph 3 - Have you ever considered a career change?
The overwhelming majority cited Increased Pay as their main incentive for a career change, followed closely by More Flexibility and Prospect of Promotion:
Graph 4 - Incentives for career change?
Most participants would chose to cut down on the number of hours worked per week in order to improve their Work/Life Balance with the way working hours are arranged coming a close second:
Graph 5 - Choice for improvingWork/Life Balance?
The overwhelming majority felt that their hobbies and leisure pursuits had suffered most from their work commitments:
Graph 6 - What has suffered most from your work commitments?
The sample was almost equally split into Males and Females.
With an average age of 33, the majority percent of the sample population concentrated in the 26 to 35 age group followed by the 20-25 age group.
The majority of nearly 40 percent classified themselves as Single, with a substantial number reporting to be Married or Cohabiting with a partner:
Graph 7 - Percentage of Relationship Status
Of those who had a partner, over half came from double earner households.
Ethnic minorities were underrepresented with over 90 percent of the participants being white. About a quarter reported to be caring for school-age children at home, with 11 percent having adult dependants
A Factor Analysis (e.g. PCA) reduces large amounts of data, such as items in a questionnaire thus revealing any underlying dimensions. Here, for items 3a to 3s it was postulated that there were not 19 separate items all measuring different things, but that there were two distinct categories or factors. The first factor was considered to the individual perception of the Work/Life Balance, tapped on by such "I-statements" as 3a: "I would accept lower pay for working fewer hours in order to have more time for my personal life". The second category of statements was considered to be related to the working environment, tapped on by items consisting of more general statements about working environment, such as 3m: "In this organisation working long hours is often confused with commitment". Hence the second factor was hypothesised to relate to perceived company culture and support.
Once factors are extracted, it is a common procedure to rotate them. This is a mathematical procedure, which essentially will produce a clearer picture of findings. A Varimax procedure using orthogonal rotation, where factors are not allowed to correlate with each other, was used in order to clean up the factors. Two factors accounting for 34.9 percent of the total variance were extracted. Taking the content of the respectively highest loading items into account Factor I labelled Perceived Work Culture And Support and Factor II Focus Of Ambition And Individually Perceived Impact Of Work Demands.
The next step was to examine whether the Factors correlated with other items in the questionnaire, such as age, company size or commitment. A correlation does not allow causal inferences though, it will merely display the presence or absence of a link between two variables.
The Factors were observed to correlate significantly with a number of other variables, such as time with one's company in month, commitment, the number of hours worked and age.
It is important to keep the characteristics of the people who took part in mind. To sum up briefly, typical participants of the study were in their late twenties to early thirties, with the majority having neither school-age children nor adult dependants to care for. This would seem to explain for instance that the majority found their leisure pursuits having suffered most from their work commitments which is in contrast to prior findings where partners and children were felt to have missed out most. The sample was almost evenly split into males and females. The majority considered themselves to work at managerial level, Sales/Marketing, Professional and Specialist were the most frequently chosen work definitions. Most were from relatively small organisations with traditional work patterns, working 35-45 hours a week on 5 days, with a considerable number putting in more time. However given the choice, many would prefer alternative work arrangements to the traditional 5-day week. Furthermore most people felt that they had reasonable control over the hours worked which they felt to be mostly justifiable. In order to improve their Work/Life Balance, the majority would choose to change the total number of hours worked per week. The majority cited Increased Pay as their main incentive for a career change, although it has to be born in mind that this was a forced choice question which only included work intrinsic aspects, rather than qualitative aspects.
PCA yielded two Factors underlying a scale of attitude statements. The largest factor was interpreted as Perceived Work Culture And Support and the second one as Focus Of Ambition And Individually Perceived Impact Of Work Demands. Overall the respondents were observed to perceive their Work/Life Balance as tipped towards a negative one. This would also seem supported by the number and quality of personal statements obtained, with 19 statements out of a total of 23 echoing some dissatisfaction with one's Work/Life balance, as opposed to two positive and two neutral ones.
The overall strongest correlations were observed between Perceived Workplace Support And Culture and items 2a ("Do you feel your company is committed to its employees' needs") and item 2c ("Do you feel committed to your company"). Possible explanations for both appeared logical since if people perceive their company to be very committed, this may have a positive impact on Perceived Workplace Support, possibly via some underlying 'feel-good factor'. However, there seemed to be some indication that the majority did not necessarily the support they receive as positive. On the one hand, most people disagreed with the statement that their company did not support them in their struggle to juggle both work and personal commitments. On the other hand, a large number felt that in their organisation working long hours has more to do with inefficiency than workload and that their organisation does not do all it can to maintain a healthy work life balance. Overall, this seems to point to a certain ambiguity in the relationship between employee and employer. Moreover, a highly significant positive correlation was also observed for Focus Of Ambition And Individually Perceived Impact Of Work Demands with Perceived Commitment To One's Company. Again, this may be argued to make intuitive sense, since the more career-focused an individual is the more one feels 'married to one's job'. It is interesting to note that overall perceived commitment seems to hold such particular importance in the Work/Life Balance context over other more factual data, such as the time spent with the company or the size of one's organisation. This would also be in line with previous findings which found commitment and consultation to be the central elements of a satisfied workforce.
Another strong correlation was found between item 2e ("have you ever considered seeking alternative employment which would entail a career change") and Factor I. Considering that the people in this study generally expressed some dissatisfaction with the Work/Life Balance, it is not surprising that this would trigger a need for a career change. This may indicate that the assessment and advocacy of a healthy Work/Life Balance may be of commercial interest to companies. It may prove beneficial to increase the perceived level of support thus retaining loyal staff over time, thus keeping training and recruitment costs to a minimum. This would be in line with a model of organisational chance which views "Culture change and the mainstreaming of work/ family issues" as a vital and integral component of successful company development.
With regard to Section One, a number of significant correlations were observed, amongst which were three highly significant ones, i.e. items 1a (Time With Company In Months), 1e (Days Worked Per Week) and 1f (Average Work Hours) with Factor II. The last two would support a common sense notion that career-focused individuals are more willing to put in extra hours despite their detrimental impact on one's private life as well as one's health and wellbeing. Hence it may be argued that an underlying factor here may possibly be individual levels of work stress.
It is also interesting to note that a significant correlation to Time With One's Company In Months was observed. Given that the majority of the sample population had spent a comparatively short time with their employers, it may be that work matters may have had a particular impact due to individuals' perception of 'having to prove one's worth'.
A significant correlation between Age and Factor II also emerged. Bearing in mind that the present sample was large limited to people in their late 20s and early 30s, this may possibly suggest that there may be a generational difference in the perceived work life balance, a notion in line with previous findings, where the under 35s displayed the highest levels of dissatisfaction.
It is somewhat surprising that no significant correlation between the item tapping on sex and either Factor emerged. Considering the comments put forward by participants, it seems that women generally feel the Work/Life strain more. Certainly more women choose to comment (14 as opposed to 9 men indicating that women and especially mothers still feel trapped in a 'catch 22', torn between their responsibilities. Nevertheless, in the present relatively young sample relatively few participants actually had dependants, thus the traditional gender divide with women still taking the brunt of household duties may not have much of an impact here.
An aspect worthy of further attention in the future would be the incorporation of a variable tapping on Quality Of Life and how this fits into the Work/Life Balance. Responding to items 3t and 3u, one respondent reported that Quality Of Life had suffered most from his/her work commitments and that this would also be the main motivator for changing his/ her job. It is a valid suggestion that such qualitative aspects deserve merit in the measurement and assessment of the Work/Life Balance and additional variables tapping on this aspect could be included in a subsequent design.
Besides a few paradoxical observations emerged. On the one hand a considerable number of respondents reported regularly work longer than average hours, feeling that these are mostly justifiable. On the other hand, the majority reported that working long hours was more to do with inefficiency than workload in their company and was also often confused with commitment. Hence, it may be concluded that the sampled population is overall somewhat stuck in a prevailing culture of presenteeism, where working long hours is still seen as an indicator of productivity. Given that the majority also commented to be somewhat torn between personal and professional responsibilities and working too many hours with not enough flexibility it may be in companies' interest to help to redress this balance. This would to enhance employees' Psychological Availability for work and stop wasting "valuable human resources", as one individual commented, by overworking their employees. This could be implemented by strategies such as offering more flexible work models, which were certainly favoured by the population sampled here.
Similarly, respondents seemed to take the little time they take out due to family or private matters as Sick Leave, despite claiming that they never had to lie when having to take time off. Again, this underline the provision of more flexible structures to be in the employer's best interest in order to prevent absenteeism.
In all there is vast scope for future research for both the detailed study into the traits underlying the Work/Life Balance by psychometric assessment and studies into the practical implementation of more flexible models, incorporating such aspects as gender differences, attitudinal change and stress levels. Further investigations may help to raise public awareness about these matters as well as aid employees to successfully co-ordinate their responsibilities and help companies to make prime use of their existing workforce. Judging by the findings of the present study, companies are still far removed from the concept of a Learning Organisation.
© 2012 Worklife Consulting Ltd.