Agnes Uhereczky is a consultant, podcaster and workplace transformer. She is the co-founder of the WorkLife HUB.
We can also apply the same mental exercise to work: by taking the same employer and employees working in the same role, they will also report very different satisfaction with their work-life balance.
Work-Life balance is a universally recognised, yet still very elusive concept, that researchers, practitioners and policy makers have been trying to pin down for a couple of decades, with the first studies dating back to the 1970s. On-going investigation is absolutely crucial, as a balanced combination of work and family influences so many factors in people’s lives: their happiness, health, financial situation, as well as the school outcomes of their children.
This is why the latest survey carried out by the Center of Social and Cultural Psychology of the University of Leuven, led by Prof. dr. Colette Van Laar, in cooperation with Dr. Loes Meeussen and Dra. Sanne Van Grootel, which surveyed an impressive 1694 people is such an important piece in the work-life balance puzzle.
The respondents were between their 20s and 70s, so well within their most exciting and productive career period, they had on average 2,6 children and lived in the Flemish speaking region in Belgium. Almost six times as many women as men filled out the questionnaire as men, which is to be expected. The questions aimed at investigating the different cultural, societal and behavioural factors, that ultimately lead to someone experiencing less conflict between their work and their private and family lives, or more. This is particularly exciting, because all the public policies (leaves, childcare) as well as organisational HR policies and working conditions are still measured with a very big spoon, without taking into consideration individual differences. Childcare opening hours have very little variation or adaptability for parents with long commutes or atypical working hours.
Conflict also happens when we are very focused in our careers
The public discourse, as well as company initiatives mainly focus on minimising the conflict between work and family life. This refers to the incompatibilities and the interruptions from one to the other. If a family member is sick, the options of organising care are limited, and we not only have to, but want to look after them. This is when the private part of our lives becomes incompatible with the way work is organised. There are conflicting obligations at the same time. That is when difficult decisions have to be taken and trade-offs are experienced. However, conflict also happens when we are very focused and driven in our careers, or our employer expects us to deliver results beyond the allocated time, and work creeps in on weekends, evenings and holiday.
As the researchers note: "Luckily, the combination of work and private life is not only a question of more or less conflict: it can also be a strong enrichment to have both aspects in our lives. This is also possible in both ways, work enriching private lives, and private and family lives enriching work. For instance, knowing you have to pick up the children in time may make you work more efficient during your work day."
“I am a mom who spends a lot of time with her children. Yet, I very much look forward to putting energy in my work and the satisfaction that comes with that.” - a respondent to the survey
Conversely, skills learned at work such as time and conflict management may be very useful at home as well. In addition, people may experience a combination of these at the same time. Conflict and enrichment between work and private life intuitively sound the opposite of each other, but they are not: very often people experience the combination of their two life domains as one of enrichment and at the same time as difficult to combine.
Turning work-life balance on its head - and focusing on enrichment, rather than conflict. This is a very welcome approach and also finding, as the narrative around work-life balance is quite often framed in solving problems of conflict, which implies that having a caring role and a paid job at the same time is a burden. This is often reflected in language used to describe interventions and policy initiatives, using terms such as “care responsibilities”, “care duties”, “work obligations”.
Paid work is necessary - for sure, but ...
What the survey suggests is that the majority of respondents, working mothers with children, report that their work enriches family life and family enriches work and the majority reported that they felt their experiences at work contributed to an enriched experience at home, and that working parents are looking forward to their work.
The important confirmation about the satisfaction and energy parents and in particular working mothers received from their paid work paves the way for further thinking about the right tools and practices that need to be in place to ensure a better reconciliation of work and life for all. Paid work is necessary - for sure, but it is also a very important aspect of our lives, where we receive recognition, social validation, are able to express ourselves in different ways than at home, all this contributes to overall better well-being for working parents.
The factors the research looked at that influence this individual, and also temporary experience are the following:
- Personal characteristics
- Family characteristics
- Work characteristics
- Environmental characteristics
What is the key take-away from the findings?
One-size fits-all policies and solutions will cover a number of beneficiaries, but given that so many factors influence how working parents experience their combination of work and private life, it is important to provide a varied mix of different work-family policies that allow people to find their personal point of balance. For one person, a balance may mean more family than work time, for another person a balance may be in more work than family time.
This is not only true in policy making, but also in our expectations of and support for the people around us: Let’s stop assuming or judging other people’s choices and keep an open mind towards our friends, colleagues, employees and employers. Anyone may experience conflict at a given time, what is important is to mobilize resources, figure out new ways of managing these domains to alleviate the conflict, and collectively work towards more people experiencing work-life enrichment, which will improve overall wellbeing, learning and health outcomes and work performance.