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Work-life balance



SUMMARY


The modern world of work poses many challenges to employees. While some careers allow for a relaxed interaction between work and private life, many other careers require significant sacrifices in the area of leisure and family.


Europeans are among the most dissatisfied when it comes to work-life balance. However, not only are more and more employees concerned with the concept of work-life balance. Meanwhile, companies are also implementing targeted measures to promote the work-life balance of their employees. The goal is not only to make employees more productive but also happier and more balanced.



CONTENTS


  • What is work-life balance all about?

  • What is a healthy work-life balance?

  • Criticism of the work-life balance model



WHAT IS WORK-LIFE BALANCE ALL ABOUT?


Work-life balance has become more than just a desirable concept. More and more companies are focusing on ensuring that their employees are in 'balance'; after all, balanced, happy employees are more motivated and productive. If a company - consciously or unconsciously - strangles employees' private lives too much, for example through too much overtime or inhumane pressure at work, this inevitably leads to dissatisfaction and stress, which in turn manifest themselves in illness, poorer productivity and alienation from the company.


Work-life balance ideally refers to the balance between a person's work life and their private life. Work-life balance is a concept of life that envisages the maximum happiness of the employee as the fuel for productive and fulfilling work and sees both employer and employee equally responsible for this.

Today, it is certain that all sides benefit from a healthy work-life balance. However, our performance-oriented society too often disregards the importance of the principle of the 'happy employee', which still causes confusion and scepticism on some management floors. This is due to competition, in which every wheel in the gearbox must function in order to remain competitive, especially in view of the so-called shortage of skilled workers and demographic trends. What is often not understood: Employees are not machines who work non-stop during the day and fill up their tanks at home. In most cases, people work in order to be able to live, and not vice versa.


A healthy attitude to work-life balance starts with the employer, when he does not see himself as the supreme authority in the lives of his employees, but as a reliable companion who makes a good life possible. Here, companies often walk a fine line; management levels still find it difficult to find the right balance between life-promoting measures and strictness at the workplace. The question often arises: how much freedom can I give my employees and how much discipline must I demand? After all, companies that are too 'loose' run the risk of employees taking too much advantage of their employer's generosity and letting the freedoms lead to indiscipline and negligence.


At the end of the day, the employee is just as responsible for a good work-life balance; after all, we are talking about a balance, not a diminished importance of work in favour of a more casual lifestyle.


On the other side are the companies whose circumstances have an all too negative impact on the private and family lives of their employees: Overtime means less free time and pressure at work leads to depressive moods even away from the office. Then, work remains omnipresent and intrudes detrimentally into private life. Overwork at the workplace, depressive illnesses and the burn-out syndrome are frequent consequences of an economic system in which growth is still the basic maxim and personal happiness is left to each individual. The concept of work-life balance aims to intervene decisively here.


A strong weight in this balance is also given to the family. Under the circumstances of the modern working world, it runs the risk of becoming merely a side effect of a successful career. Companies have a responsibility here to facilitate a healthy family life. After all, for many employees, the family is the most important support for a happy life. If this is neglected in favour of professional life, the entire work-life balance threatens to tip dangerously.



WHAT IS A HEALTHY WORK-LIFE BALANCE?


A healthy work-life balance includes many interacting factors. Work-life balance is the art of implementing as many of these factors as possible in both areas without causing damage elsewhere. To achieve this, it is important to know what is involved in a good professional life and a good private life and how these points are interrelated.


Many of the factors mentioned below can also interact across categories (e.g. the factors "social work environment" in professional life and "friends" in private life are often mixed together). It should also be clear that the needs in the respective areas of life are individual. While one employee attaches great importance to hobbies and personal interests but is not (yet) interested in planning his or her own family, for another, it is enough to be able to spend enough time with the family for a healthy private life.


The balance between private and professional life

For a healthy work-life balance, it is not only the relationship between the two sides that is crucial but also the individual quality of each side. If a worker drags work-life problems into an otherwise full private life, the whole fabric suffers. Conversely, private worries can have a negative impact on work life. Clearly, a good work-life balance is only achieved when certain framework conditions make the job a workplace that does not stand in the way of the employee's personal happiness. Ideally, this happiness is the basis and goal of a productive and healthy working relationship.


Productive work

For many workers, a healthy working life means that their work produces visible and valuable results. 'Productive work' in this sense does not mean maximum output to the detriment of other factors, but the amount of valuable work that is optimal for the particular worker. For example, an unsatisfactory set of tasks leads to a worker not identifying with his or her work and a process of alienation takes place that can eventually have a negative impact on many areas of professional life.


Productive work, therefore, means the right amount of satisfying and fulfilling work. The employer benefits here from a high degree of motivation on the part of the employee - if he creates the right framework conditions for productive work. In contrast, unsatisfying work may have negative consequences for the employee's private life, if the employee takes this dissatisfaction 'home'. Work-life balance, therefore, depends crucially on the individual quality of work and whether the employee is satisfied with his or her own work.


Appreciation of work

This is where the employer comes in first and foremost. Most employees need a feeling of appreciation for the person and the work in order to identify positively with the workplace. In addition to non-material rewards such as praise, this also includes real reward systems such as transparent opportunities for promotion, fair wages, bonus payments, etc. Most workers want to feel that their dignity is recognised and treated as the people they are and want to be. If a company disregards this point, it treats workers like machines that are expected to deliver the same product over and over again. 'Valuing work' simply means recognising the worker's performance and rewarding it accordingly.


A particularly dangerous element that seriously jeopardises the employee's satisfaction is unconstructive criticism of his or her performance. The resulting existential anxiety and insecurity often spills over into all areas of the employee's life, making it difficult for him to compensate for the resulting frustration in his professional life with a solid private life. The work-life balance can only be intact if the employee feels treated with dignity and appreciation. Otherwise, there is the threat of a downward spiral of stress, frustration and worries that will throw the whole balance into disarray.


Social work environment

Work colleagues are often considered the 'second family' because you usually spend a lot of time with them. This makes the social fabric of the work environment all the more important. Relationships between people are highly complex and difficult to influence due to many individual factors. Nevertheless, with the right framework conditions, employers can ensure that the workplace can be a breeding ground for interpersonal relationships. This includes a healthy interaction of clear hierarchies or structures and social freedoms, clear rules against anti-social factors such as bullying and intolerance, team-building measures, an 'open office' and much more.


The right corporate structures, a positively interpreted corporate philosophy and actively lived corporate responsibility towards employees create good foundations for workers to work not only with mere colleagues but also with people in whose presence they feel comfortable. If an employee is poorly integrated into the social fabric of the workplace or even experiences harassment up to and including bullying, this can have devastating consequences for both professional and private life. Here, both fields intermingle intensively; if the social working environment is ill, the employee also becomes ill and drags his worries and problems into almost all other areas of professional and private life.


Flexible working hours and structures

The term work-life balance is often understood as pure time management, but this only includes part of a healthy work-life balance. Nevertheless, proper time management is essential for balance and lays the foundation for many other factors. To ensure that there is enough time for private or family life in addition to work, the employer has a few options. For one, the practice of home office is becoming increasingly popular, especially for the so-called desk jobs. Here, the employer offers the employee to stay at home during working hours and work from there. All that is usually needed is a functioning computer with an internet connection.


Some advantages of home office are:


  • The employee has more free time because he does not have to travel to work.

  • He may be able to work in a more relaxed way because certain circumstances at the workplace (dress code, break times, social pressure, noise in the office, etc.) are eliminated.

  • Parents have the opportunity to spend more time with partners and/or children, as long as they pursue the work activity sufficiently.


However, home office also always runs the risk of being 'exploited' for personal purposes because the worker is largely removed from social control. However, many find it difficult to concentrate on work at home, so home office is not a universal means for a good work-life balance.


It is somewhat easier when it comes to flexible working hours. The more freedom the employee enjoys with regard to the start and end of the working day, break times and the division of weekly hours, the better he can coordinate his working life with his private life. In many workplaces this is already the case, e.g. it is often up to the worker when he arrives at work in the morning and when he leaves, as long as he works the contractual hours. A framework can be set (e.g. "8 hours work between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m."), and the more generous this framework is, the more flexibly the worker is allowed to organise his or her working time. Many employers relax this framework on Fridays so that the worker can go into the weekend earlier, provided he or she has worked his or her set number of hours beforehand.


This (and the following) area also covers the issue of rest through sleep (see below for more details). Since sufficient sleep is conducive to concentration and performance, employers can not only do something for the health of their employees with flexible working time models, but also for the quality of work results.


Measures for health, nutrition, exercise

Many activities have a negative impact on the health and well-being of employees. Employers can counteract this with certain measures. For desk jobs, in addition to back-friendly furnishings (good chairs, height-adjustable desks, optional standing tables, etc.), offers such as sports courses and educational health training (back schools, yoga courses, etc.) are recommended.


Healthy eating is mainly the individual responsibility of each employee. Nevertheless, the employer has several possibilities to create good framework conditions. If a workplace has a canteen, it should ideally have a correspondingly wide range of options (vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, etc.) and also ensure transparency with regard to ingredients and additives. In addition, regular fruit deliveries and sufficiently provided drinking water facilities ('water cooler', fizzy drink machine or similar) are further popular measures to do something for the health of employees.


In-house childcare

Workers often struggle to spend enough time with their children. Similarly, finding daycare facilities poses challenges for working parents. As a result, children can significantly upset the work-life balance. On the one hand, there are those parents who spend too little time with their children because their own job takes up too much time and attention. On the other hand, there are employees who perform less well and accumulate absenteeism because of their obligations as parents.


A company kindergarten is a suitable measure to reconcile the professional and private lives of employees with children. Parents and offspring are thus within reliable reach of each other. If the employer provides appropriate staff and premises, the family atmosphere thus created at the workplace can be quite inspiring. In general, in-house childcare is an effective way to make it easier for employees to manage their work-life balance.


Other benefits

Additional services provided by the employer, so-called benefits, also have a positive effect on the employee's work-life balance. For one thing, a company pension plan solves part of the question of how to finance life in old age. Another popular benefit is the so-called company ticket, which allows employees to use local public transport at no cost to themselves.


Employers should not underestimate the positive effect of corporate responsibility. If a company takes its responsibility towards society, the environment and its employees seriously, this usually leads to a better identification with the employer. In the knowledge that they are working for a 'good company', employees are also more willing to perform. In this context, days off are also popular, when employees are allowed to voluntarily participate in charitable events.


Factors of a healthy private life

What constitutes a healthy private life varies greatly from person to person. After all, everyone understands personal private happiness differently. Nevertheless, certain factors can be defined that play an important role in most people's private lives. If a part of one's private life is unpleasant, this often has direct consequences for one's working life. Some workers have the ability to compensate for an unfulfilling private life with a successful professional life. However, this is probably true for most people: A good work-life balance starts with leisure time.


Family and partnership

For many people, family is the most important pillar of a happy life. For many employees, the end of the working day is defined by the time they spend with their family or partner. If this time is stressful, the employee does not get the desired rest and a vicious circle of work and 'work after work' develops, which can eventually upset the entire work-life balance. In extreme cases, workers work extra overtime to get home later. Of course, this also works the other way around if the worker takes too much time off for the family and thus jeopardises the job.


Friendships

Many employees find it difficult (especially as they get older) to maintain friendships alongside their jobs. There are many reasons why it is becoming more and more difficult to meet friends. On the one hand, many workers are simply too exhausted for social activities after work, so friendships can suffer under difficult working conditions. For another, a full-time job often leads to scheduling problems, especially when family is another factor.


Also, many workers tend to make their colleagues the new social anchors previously filled by outside friends. While this leads to a more pleasant work environment overall, friendships among colleagues run the risk of becoming too defined by the job. Often these friendships cease when the employment relationship ends. If the employee has then insufficiently cultivated his external friendships, he is at risk of social isolation.


Private happiness, which balances the work-life balance, often comes from long-time friends forming anchor points away from the job. In this way, the person does not feel reduced to the mere workplace. External friends are so important for one's own well-being because - to put it somewhat bluntly - they provide access to the world outside the workplace. This is an essential part of the concept of work-life balance, which is why one should never underestimate the friendship factor.


Love life and dating

This factor relates more to workers who are single. A stressful job that may require a lot of overtime and is exhausting can have a negative impact on dating. This, in turn, is quite detrimental to private life and shifts the work-life balance significantly if workers do not cope with the loneliness and (sexual) frustration that an unsuccessful partner search typically brings.


The love life factor is similar in scope to the family and friends factors. If work-life takes up too much space in the employee's life and thus jeopardises partner search and family planning, this may have consequences for mental well-being. In extreme cases, there is a risk of depressive moods or even serious illness. Pent-up frustration can also be released at the workplace, for example, as soon as the employee starts looking for a partner (even of necessity) at the workplace itself. Then the social fabric of the company may be damaged.


An employer cannot prevent social contact among colleagues from leading to intimate relationships. Here it is essentially the responsibility of the employees concerned to keep the employment relationship and the private relationship apart and to reconcile them. It is generally advisable to inform the employer about the relationship, but there is no obligation to do so.


Hobbies and interests

Many employees have hobbies and interests that they would like to pursue alongside their job. However, many workplaces make this very difficult. Hobbies that follow fixed schedules can become impossible due to inflexible working hours. Likewise, a stressful job often has the effect that the employee no longer has the energy to follow his or her interests or hobbies after work. Here, individual self-realisation in leisure time is at stake - private life makes way for the demanding work life. The work-life balance suffers noticeably as a result.


In addition to more flexible working hours, employers have several ways to honour the individual interests of their employees. In-house social networks are popular platforms for sharing interests. This way, employees can network and arrange to do activities together. Sharing hobbies and interests with colleagues has two distinct advantages: Firstly, leisure time planning is usually very similar, which means that collisions are less likely to occur. Second, it strengthens the social fabric at work because shared interests are good anchor points for human relationships. However, it is also important to bear in mind what has been said above about "friendships".


Sport and health

The topic of health reaches into all areas of a person's life and is therefore of central importance for the work-life balance. Basically, almost all factors - whether social, personal, family, psychological or physical - have something to do with it. Sport has been shown to play an essential role in physical and mental health.


Many workers need to compensate through exercise, especially if they spend most of their working lives in a sedentary position. Especially in desk jobs, it is important to exercise for at least half an hour several times a week. But it is also advisable to be on your feet for at least five minutes for every hour spent sitting during the working day. Physical fitness is important to many, which is why sporting activity in leisure time is of great importance.


In addition to providing healthier workplace conditions (see above), companies can also provide sporting compensation for their employees. Possible offers are leisure events such as company runs or football tournaments or discounts at fitness studios. Ultimately, however, it is the responsibility of each employee to decide whether and to what extent he or she wishes to take advantage of such offers.


Finally, it is extremely important that both employees and employers deal with the issue of health in a responsible manner. On the one hand, this means that employees should also take care of their health in their private free time, and on the other hand, that the employer should show understanding for sick employees and be accommodating to a certain extent when it comes to absences or doctor's appointments during working hours. This can prevent a sick employee from falling into a dangerous downward spiral.


Sleep

An often underestimated factor for general well-being is a healthy sleep rhythm. Too little sleep usually leads to poorer performance, mood swings, increased physical vulnerability and many other risks. Often, the amount of sleep a person has can be used to gauge how balanced their work-life balance is. It is therefore not surprising that many psychologists and doctors consider healthy sleep to be a key factor for a happy life.


Sleep is a valuable resource that employees all too often (have to) economise on. Those who still have leisure activities planned after a long day at work often forgo a few hours of sleep. The possible consequence: the work-life balance gets out of joint.


Prof. James Gangwisch from Columbia University answers the question of how important healthy sleep is for productivity at work. In his study on sleep in relation to work-life balance, Gangwisch finds that flexible working hours in particular are a suitable means of promoting healthy sleep among employees. In particular, generous arrangements for the start of work in the morning allow employees to arrange their sleep time according to their needs. The demonstrable increase in performance resulting from this is then also advantageous for the employer.


At the same time, however, Gangwisch warns against too much fool's freedom because the employee would then more often overstretch his flexibility and not get any rhythm into his day-night cycle. It is, therefore, necessary to agree on a working time system that is flexible and binding enough for everyone.


Healthy sleep is an extremely complex issue and cannot be solved with a suitable working time system alone. After all, almost all factors in professional and private life can have both positive and negative effects on sleep. Many people find it difficult to fall asleep due to existing worries, others are never able to find peaceful sleep due to stress in their private lives. In addition to individual physical and mental factors such as nutrition, exercise and mental health, influences such as the place of residence, noise and the weather play a role in the type and duration of rest phases that should not be underestimated.


Relaxation and self-reflection

This factor is strongly dependent on what the individual understands by relaxation and how much of it he or she needs. Many people have a healthy professional and private life, but still, never get any rest. Their lives often follow the same routine: go to work in the morning, have lunch with colleagues, go to the family after work, spend time with their partner and/or children, do some sport, go to bed. What sounds like a good work-life balance often feels superficial to the individual. After all, when does a person have time for themselves?


A person must cultivate and refresh the ability to self-reflect again and again. In essence, it is about keeping one's own compass with which one goes through life. A variety of questions about self-realisation, fulfilment of meaning and one's own desires play a role here: Am I really where I want to be? What are my dreams and goals? What have I already achieved? What am I afraid of? What helps me to become more content?


Many people find this important time for themselves in the hobbies and interests that define them. In this context, meditation is becoming an increasingly popular spiritual practice, as it is meant to gather the mind and reflect on important life issues.


Work-life balance, then, is not only about finding the right balance between work and private life, but also about regularly reflecting on and questioning it. But here, too, the right balance is important: Those who try to work out a good work-life balance more than to live it are largely missing the point behind the concept.



CRITICISM OF THE WORK-LIFE BALANCE MODEL


Although the work-life balance model is generally accepted and more and more companies are taking appropriate measures to promote it, there are also some voices that see the concept as problematic.


A frequent criticism describes the work-life balance as a myth. It is an ideal state that is practically impossible to achieve because life cannot be planned. The idea of work-life balance disregards the chaotic nature of life, which simply cannot be brought under control through careful planning. The model also ignores important skills such as adaptability and improvisation. At the same time, it tries to impose a 'life management' on people that is impossible in this form. The exaggerated care in life planning ironically only creates more stress.


Another point of criticism is the term "work-life balance" itself. This suggests that work and life are two opposing spheres. Critics of the model argue that this separation is not correct because people also live when they work. For many people, work is also sufficient as 'life' - the concept of work-life balance thus draws a line that does not exist.


In the course of this, the model denigrates professional life as the enemy of private life, although one does not have to make this separation. Dissatisfaction with work itself cannot be remedied by striving for a work-life balance; rather, a change of job is a suitable remedy. As an alternative, the term work-life integration is often used today, which envisages an ideal fusion of professional and private life instead of separating the two areas. The idea of work-life effectiveness follows a similar approach.


Many critics also criticise the prioritisation of 'balance' in the model. They argue that human beings are naturally unbalanced, which in no way leads to personal unhappiness. For many people, a successful professional life is enough to be happy and productive; many workers even draw more strength from an inner restlessness that drives them to ever better performance. In addition, many people divide their lives into periods in which they focus more on either their professional or private lives. Work-life balance, however, envisages an ideal general state that cannot and should not be applied comprehensively to all people.


Further criticism is directed against individual measures of work-life balance efforts. Flexible working hours are not suitable for every employee; a strictly planned working day also has a number of advantages, from planning security to healthier sleep (although there is a lot of scientific uncertainty on the subject of sleep). In addition, facilities such as company day-care centres are often an additional stress element at the workplace; after all, many employees recover from family at work.


Many measures are described as hypocritical across the board; for example, offering fresh fruit and flexible working hours does not yet mean a work-life balance and thus pleasing oneself. Critics of work-life balance prefer to appeal to a positive corporate social responsibility that creates healthy conditions for good work. A concept like work-life balance would then be superfluous and at best a meaningless buzzword.

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