Sunday 23 October 2016

Balancing the bucket and spade with the tie and suit

Published 26/07/2015 | 02:30

Getting the work-life balance right is not easy
Getting the work-life balance right is not easy

Getting the work-life balance right is not easy. Your columnist struggles with it - as do many people.

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With many of us now looking forward to some summer down time and the opportunity to kick back and take stock, how we balance our professional and private lives is a subject some of us will mull from sun loungers and bar stools.

This end-of-term column hopes to assist you in your ruminations by highlighting some of the important issues raised in the big body of literature on the subject, and how we Irish rate, compared to our peers, in terms of how much we work and how satisfied we are with our professional and private lives.

It may be hard to believe when you're exhausted at the end of a long week or if you are being put upon by your boss, but having a job is one of the best indicators for happiness and well-being.

To have a decent standard of living one obviously needs income. But employment also provides a sense of fulfilment and identity - few of us actually do idleness well.

Conversely, a low level of life satisfaction is correlated with unemployment and underemployment.

Thus, when the unemployment rate increases, and the economy is in trouble, the nation can be expected to become grunpier. This can be seen in the Eurobarometer opinion survey, which has been carried out in Ireland annually since 1973 and which is illustrated in the first graphic.

The downturns of the 1980s and recent years both saw declines in those declaring themselves to be satisfied with life. Though, that we thought we were about as content in the 1970s as during the Celtic Tiger illustrates that all things are relative.

With the exception of 1988 Ireland has always been above the EU average. And, as the first chart shows, satisfaction has been soaring again recently. The latest survey, from November 2014, shows 39pc of Irish respondents were 'Very Satisfied' with life and 53pc declaring themselves 'Fairly Satisfied'.

While it appears that the Irish are generally content with life, it is worthwhile looking at more detailed statistics. Eurostat's data on quality of life measures for 2013 - the latest available - gives a more nuanced picture. As the bar-chart shows, Ireland is average or above the European average in all categories, with the exception of satisfaction with one's financial situation (the scale is 0 to 10, with 0 being worst and 10 being best).

When asked about the level of satisfaction with their jobs, Irish people are at the European average. About a fifth report low satisfaction with employment, a quarter high, and the remainder medium.

Job satisfaction is closely related to education and income levels. Those with higher educational attainment and salaries like their jobs more - not surprising really, as education and income are correlated themselves.

What is somewhat surprising is that age does not seem to be a factor in job satisfaction, even though income tends to increase as one gets older. This suggests that people's future expectations and preferences may be at play.

The extent to which we feel we exercise control over our lives is also a factor - those working in jobs that require basic skills and are least satisfied, while managers and professionals are the most satisfied. The control factor may also explain why self-employed people with employees are happier than those working for themselves alone.

Those yearning to get away on holidays to catch up sleep will be a little surprised to find that working hours have little impact on satisfaction. In fact, it marginally increases with longer hours, probably due to dissatisfaction amongst those with reduced hours.

Finally, there is a connection between job stability and higher levels of satisfaction. Those who had changed their jobs recently were less content than those who remained in the same job over the last year. Perhaps reflecting better prospects for job security and promotional opportunities.

The toil of work is of course only one side of life. Having a good work-life balance is further associated with both a high quality of life and work.

Time spent away from work (usually defined as 'leisure' in economics and elsewhere) is not necessarily time well spent. Commuting, housework, and caring all count as leisure in the data. In order to get around this, surveys ask about overall satisfaction with time use. Irish respondents are similar to their continental counterparts on this question.

There are, it is worth noting, large differences among age-groups. The older groups (65+) and youngest (16-24 year olds) posted the highest ratings. 25-49 year olds have the lowest. The inference is clearly that the latter group has a high amount of unpaid work on childcare and housework, so less time to engage in cultural, social or sporting activities. Households with children were least satisfied with their time use - single parents being under the most time pressure. Other factors such as education, gender and income had only minor impact.

Pressures at home can be as serious as pressure at work. Conflicts between the demands of work and family life have been linked to poorer outcomes in martial relations, children's development, and a range of job-related problems. Pressures at home have grown in line with higher female participation in the labour force, as many households have to reconcile two careers.

It may be of some comfort to those struggling with their work-life balance to know that economists share their concerns. Recent debate has led many to conclude that the typical economic indicators such as GDP miss out on too much.

In 2009, Amartya Sen, Joseph Stilitz and Jean-Paul Fitoussi wrote an influential report for the French government, recommending that living standards, including good work-life balances, be taken into account when measuring economic performance. President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors have also called for a better work-life balance in America.

It is inevitable that these modern pressures lead to calls for public policy and government to intervene. Helen Russell and Frances McGinnity of the ESRI find that satisfaction with work-life balance is strongly associated with working hours, flexibility, and working unsocial hours*. Predictably, they find that the best regimes can be found in the Nordic and Continental European countries.

Evidence also exists that links good work-life balances with higher productivity (albeit a third factor, good management, may explain this).

What may suit larger companies and the public sector may not be that easy for smaller firms. It is doubtless that SME owners will be wary of government directives imposing greater workplace flexibility on them. But how well people integrate paid work with the rest of their life is clearly important for general well-being. It is likely we will hear more about these issues in the future.

Wishing all readers who are escaping the grind a very satisfying break!


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