How to get the payback from investment in work-life balance

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In this article, Professor David Clutterbuck of Clutterbuck Associates describes the outcomes of research into the management of work-life balance, and establishes a broad quality model for this activity.

Vast amounts of time and effort have been injected by companies and Government in recent years in policies and initiatives to improve work-life balance. The business case, if sometimes expressed in over-optimistic terms, is broadly sound; the benefits to individuals and the community at large even clearer. Yet the results have been disappointing. While companies point to specific benefits from individual initiatives, the overall impact has generally been muted. For employees, there is even less to write home about – the proportion of people regularly working long hours is still increasing. What has gone wrong?

Before we look at why organisations struggle to make work-life balance deliver, it helps to examine why individuals have problems balancing the various parts of their lives.

At heart, the dilemma of work-life balance is one of complexity management. Our Victorian ancestors, who worked 60 hours a week with a mere handful of public holidays, do not appear to have suffered angst about work-life balance, so why do we? Put simply, our lives are immensely more complex and becoming increasingly so with every year that passes. In every aspect of our lives, we have more choices, more opportunities, and more demands upon us. Think, for example, how many more activities the typical parent ends up transporting their children to each week!

The same is true for employer organisations. The concept of excellence has been replaced by that of agility, as the Holy Grail of thriving and survival. Organisations need to have farsight, but be capable of rapid action and reaction – a difficult juggling act. In order to gain real value from investment in work-life balance, organisations need to recognise it as a complex issue and apply much more holistic solutions than has usually been the case.

Most of the organisations we examined in a detailed study had put considerable effort into establishing policies for work-life balance. But policies don't change anything, if
the culture is resistant. Employees who fear that working flexibly or part-time will have a negative effect on their careers or their bonus will inevitably feel wary of taking advantage of work-life balance policies.

Copyright Clutterbuck Associates 2003. The author has a new book, 'Managing the Work-Life Balance', which looks more closely at some of the reasons why there are problems with putting work-life balance into practice - and outlines some practical solutions.

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