work-life balance

Leave your work at work before it kills you

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laptop_mail_pc_1600_wht_2103Taking work home these days doesn’t necessarily mean a briefcase full of papers. It’s more likely to be a digital connection in our “always on” culture.

Once upon a time you could go home and work couldn’t interfere. Now you have your laptop, your phone, your tablet: you are connected. So you are always on whether you like it or not.

This is the first generation that has had to deal with the ramifications of that” said a director of AXA PPP Healthcare which supported the study. (Professor Cary Cooper spoke out about this in 2015 – as I posted here.)

As a result home has become more stressful than the office according to a recent survey. This has linked the problem of making yourself available 24/7 with cardiovascular disease.

It seems more than 50% of the 550 workers surveyed at a London-based French bank are more stressed at home than at work as they try to relax while still thinking about work.

This researchers used wrist monitors to measure changes in heart rate and the results led the researchers to believe that it’s the spikes that are dangerous. “Dealing with work while at home is pernicious to health and is directly linked to cardiovascular disease. That is now measurable and before it was not”.

Stress levels were found to be dangerously high until about 2030 when young children went to bed but some people’s levels remained high until after midnight. A smaller number of them, over 25, woke up between 0300 and 0400 and some of them even started working during that time.

The research was sponsored by an insurance company which now plans to monitor staff in high pressure jobs to see if their ability to perform has been damaged by an inability to switch off. This is likely in the next three years.

No wonder some countries like France have banned e-mails after working hours and Japan is urging workers to take time off to go shopping and reduce “death by overwork” or karate.

We’ve known for decades that working over 50 hours a week is bad for men and their hearts, and more recently it’s been found that senior women suffer stress too.

Why people still put ourselves through this when they know (or should know) the health risks is hard to fathom although there is some US research which found that some people found work less stressful than being at home.

So is it job insecurity? Addiction to work? Fear of missing out (FOMO) or being off-line (FOBO)? Whatever it’s surely time to rethink our work-life balance and stick two fingers up to the American idea of work-life merge.

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Working too hard? Go shopping

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nickel_and_dimed_1600_wht_6554The japanese government are worried about people working too hard and killing themselves from overwork, called karoshi, from which 200 people died last year.

Its chief spokesman Yoshihide Suga said Japan must “end long working hours so people can balance their lives with things like raising a child or taking care of the elderly“.

Almost 1 in 4 Japanese employees work over 50 hours a week compared to 1 in 8 in Britain and the US and 1 in 12 in France. On average Japanese workers take only half their paid holiday entitlement as taking time off is considered an “inconvenience to their colleagues”

So they’ve introduced Premium Friday. On the last Friday of each month employees will be encouraged to leave the office at 1500 and make an early start to the weekend.

The purpose is two-fold: to enable people to recover from working the longest working hours in the world and to give the retail sector a much-needed boost by encouraging people to go shopping. It’s been estimated that if everyone takes advantage of this it could generate £900 million extra consumer spending every month.

The Japan Business Federation (Kaidenren) is urging its 1300 members to take part and the Trade Minister has promised not to make any appointments on Premium Friday afternoons.

However Mitsubishi Electric is currently under investigation for allegedly forcing its staff to work excessive hours and it’s not known how many people will break the habits of a lifetime in a period of economic uncertainty and job insecurity.

Also people might just go home to rest or shop on Friday instead of Saturday. After all if they are cutting down their hours they won’t have the money they earn with overtime to spend will they?

Getting work-life balance right is never easy when people have to work long hours to maintain their standard of living.

Japan has the longest lived people in the world and also the most rapidly ageing society with a quarter of the population over 65. This is not without its problems.

Because of the declining birth-rate this proportion will increase to 40% by 20160.  However scientists have now declared that for healthy people old age should be classified as 75, not 65. 

So will the government delay pensions and extend people’s working lives? They probably will otherwise there will be no-one working and paying tax to support the elderly in future years.

Gig workers on the rise

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Teamwalking1You’ve no doubt seen them, those nomads wandering around with laptops or tablets, coffee shop warriors hogging that comfortable settee you had your eye on.

The new word for these freelancers is gig worker. Now when I get a gig I’m expected to take my guitar but that’s another story.

I wrote about the gig economy a year ago when the term had replaced portfolio working and was no longer just about consultants and trainers but about a whole range of people seeking flexibility and control over their work.

It seems that the trend is continuing with parents wanting to work around school hours at the same time as companies wanting more flexibility in managing their head count.

According to the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-employed there are 1.6 million freelancers in the UK.

And according to a survey of knowledge workers by a software company just over half of them now work in virtual teams and most of those believe it is more effective than working face-to-face. In addition half of them would consider freelance work if it were offered to them.

The office is clearly becoming increasingly less important, and maybe less attractive due to the travel and daily hassles it can entail. Working from home is becomes more popular, perhaps in an effort to improve work-life balance, but is not for everyone. Whether it’s more productive is a different matter.

Matt Roberts, CEO at Touch Networks,  says “People want greater autonomy and a better work-life balance, while companies want consultation from people with diverse skill sets and experience“.

He says 40% of Americans will be self-employed by 2020 and he thinks the UK is heading the same way. Here there is a North-South divide with most freelancers based in the South East (22%), Greater London (21%), and South-West (12%),  areas, whereas there are only 1% of them in Northern Ireland.

What are they all doing? 

According to the Labour Force Survey 2015 the proportion of freelancers in different occupations is:

  • 68% of artistic, literary and media workers
  • 40% of those who work in sport and fitness
  • 35% of managers and proprietors
  • 32% of those who work in design occupations
  • 21% of therapists
  • 17% of health-care workers
  • 15% of business research & admin workers
  • 13% of IT workers
  • 12% of business & finance workers
  • 11% of engineers
  • 9% of functional management & directors
  • 9% of sales & marketing workers
  • 8% of teachers & those working in education
  • 8% of those working in public services

A year ago I wrote about people on zero-hour contracts and the gap between power workers and those on basic pay. This issue has not gone away with HMRC currently taking an interest in several companies which pay less than the minimum wage.

 

Are men in UK leading the way back to Work-Life balance?

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figure_juggling_balls_500_wht_4301Men have traditionally been seen as the main wage-earners, even as workaholics. The best they could look forward to was a bit of spare time in their (usually short) retirement.

Then in the 1980s came the idea of work-life balance, when people were demanding more flexibility than the standard working hours (which had steadily reduced over the previous century). But with the banking crisis the term suddenly dropped out of fashion.

We were told it was now work-life merge! And who was promoting this idea? Well women were doing their bit to discourage us from thinking that you could have a healthy balance between work and home allowing you to have quality time with your family.

Women like Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook who encouraged women to “lean in” to have the best of both worlds. Or Marissa Mayer who was appointed to the top job at Yahoo when she was pregnant, built herself a crèche next to her office and banned staff from working from home.

Mayer is currently under pressure having lost about a dozen C-level executives this year and has been accused of having a controlling management style. She’s currently pregnant with  twins and plans to take two weeks maternity leave (her entitlement is 16 weeks). Mark Zuckerberg (head of Facebook) on the other hand is planning to take two months off work when his child is born.

But enough of theses highly paid female CEOs. The good news is that over a million men in the UK are now making an effort to get more out of life than just work by reducing their hours or working more flexibly. They are keen to stay fit, follow a hobby, see more of their kids, and contribute more to their communities.

NB This year there were 14.3 million men employed full-time and 2.1 million working part-time in the UK.

FYI Britain doesn’t come out too well in the OECD list of top countries for work-life balance. Denmark is No. 1 followed by Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium and Norway. We come in at No.23! Sweden is 6th and currently experiencing an upsurge of interest in work-life balance

So a long way to go by comparison but don’t let these highly paid American female CEOs put you off!

People want more flexible working

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brain_with_questions_1600_wht_9219In the search for a better work-life balance some people are giving up their traditional jobs and building up a portfolio of part-time jobs instead.

Portfolio working was a term coined by Charles Handy back in the 1980s which has now been replaced by the “gig economy“.

With the developments in new technology and easier access to free wi-fi in coffee bars (but not to our shame in most hotels) people who were once described as Nomads were the exception. Freelance consultants or trainers in the main.

But attitudes have changed and young people, stay-at-home Mums, and those approaching retirement or who have retired i.e. not middle-aged people with a mortgage to worry about, a make up an increasing proportion of the workforce – already a third in the USA – opting to work in this way.

Uber, the taxi service, says many of its drivers have other jobs or are students (I remember when firefighters used to work as taxi-drivers among other things in their time off). Although working from home has become more popular, not everyone thinks this way including, perhaps surprisingly, Generation Y employees.

The desire for flexibility, and I would say control over the work they do, is what seems to be driving this trend. Together with the unavailability of traditional jobs for those in this segment of the economy.

The research behind this story was carried out by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills

Work, rest and play

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stick_figure_running_with_luggage_500_wht_7358No-one talks about Work-Life balance any more; Work-Life Merge seems to be accepted as the way it is, particularly in the USA. With the growth of smartphones and tablets workers are increasingly expected to keep in touch with work.

A recent survey by LondonOffice.com found that the majority (70%) of British business professionals check their work e-mails at least once a day when on holiday. 1 in 5 of them said they answered the e-mails and 60% of these carried on with the interchange if they thought it was important.

On the positive side a quarter of those surveyed said they didn’t check their e-mails when on holiday and 9% conveniently “forgot” to take their digital device with them.

For most people it takes some time to switch off from work and adjust to a different holiday tempo, and you may miss the structure work gives you.

Holiday can be stressful as well as enjoyable. There may be a large financial investment and high expectations. For freelance or contract workers there is a double cost as they are not earning during the holiday. People worry about travel problems, losing baggage, having accidents/illness.

Much as you may love your partner/family spending 24/7 with them can also be a strain. If your relationship is having problems you may find going to work is an escape for you and/or provides you with social support.

Organisations today generally have flatter structures with fewer managers supervising more staff. Managers or team leader may not have deputies to look after things whilst they are away and may worry about what they will be going back to.

Managers may not have sufficient skills to delegate or manage their time effectively. They may not have the skills to develop/train staff to deal with minor problems. They may lack confidence themselves or feel they have to micro-manage staff. For some managers stress is caused by not knowing what’s going on back at work.

Workaholics are often rewarded by organisations and this leads to “presenteeism” where staff feel they have to work long hours for appearances’ sake.

Working more than 50 hours a week is not productive (more mistakes, accidents, poorer quality work) and also has health risks. Those managers who say they get bored on holiday should bear this in mind. Laptops or smartphones on the beach don’t usually go down well with the family.

E-mail overload is an increasing source of stress. Companies can help by having policies about e-mail distribution but sometimes managers feel they have to check their e-mails if only to delete the spam or reduce the volume when they get back.

pen_display_accomplished_1600_wht_7579So what can you do?

  • Pre-planning is crucial which includes briefing your team on what to expect when you’re away and delegating responsibility to them.
  • Leave an out-of-office message asking people to contact you on your return if possible or contact a colleague if it’s urgent
  • Have day off before you travel on holiday to help you prepare for the break.
  • If you really have to use your digital device restrict your usage to an hour each day and let your staff know when that time will be.
  • Having a buffer zone at each end of a holiday can help. Having a day of to get things sorted out at home before you go back to work or just going in for an afternoon to start with to clear any backlog enables you to get the best out of your holiday.

And if you still think you are indispensable remember De Gaulle’s dictum of how the graveyards are full of indispensable men.

Working from home becoming more popular

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puzzle_piece_house_outline_1600_wht_4232Fed up of that stressful commute to work or having a bad day at the office?

Avoid all that by working from home. It’s the new status symbol – according to the Office of National Statistics.

1 in 7 of us now work from home ie 4.2 million people of which 1.5 million actually work there with the others using home as a base while working in different places.

Three-quarters of home-based workers are classed as higher skilled compared to one half of office-based workers.

So working from one seems to be restricted to high-flyers; 1/7 are managers or senior officials, 1/3 are professionals, and 1/4 are from high-skilled trades.

Median earnings for home-workers are £13.23 an hour compared to £10.50 for other workers. A third work for other people or companies with two-thirds are self-employed and the older the worker the more likely are they to work from home.

The age difference might be due to seniority or the fact that older workers made redundant find it more difficult to get jobs and often end up working for themselves.

There are regional differences with home-based working more popular in the south-west and far less common in the north.

Better technology has made working from home more cost-effective although many bosses still don’t trust staff who work from home even though there is evidence that they put in more hours and can be more productive.

Deloitte has introduced an “agile working programme” and is inviting its 12,000 UK employees to apply to work from home or in other flexible ways. They think it will attract and retain female staff but also improve working lives generally.

Not everyone agrees. Marissa Mayer banned Yahoo! staff from working from home when she became Chief Executive.

She said “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussion, meeting new people and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo! and that starts with being physically together“.

Easy for her to say and not doing women any favours when she built a crèche for her baby next to her office.

Stress – it never really went away

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CNV00032_2_2We thought it had. There were fewer offerings from stress management experts with a shift of emphasis to developing resilience and sickness absence rates dropped.

Alas the fear of losing your job makes people attend work more diligently (even when they shouldn’t) and the resulting “presenteeism” masks rising levels of mental health problems.

The Engineering Employers Federation (which I used to know well as at one time I was their stress management expert in the North West) surveyed 350 companies involving 90,000 workers. They found that only 1 in 10 companies provided training for managers on mental health issues. So they found a market for it – if companies were really interested.

Two fifths of the companies said long-term absence rates were increasing even though absence overall was low at 2.2% i.e. 5 days per employee a year on average. In fact half of the workers never took any time off sick.

Back problems (musculo-skeletal) are still the main cause of long-term absence overall but for a quarter of the companies stress and mental health disorders were the main cause.

These are still considered the most difficult to deal with in adjusting work to meet the employees’ needs.

The EEF’s Chief Medical Adviser says GPs should be given the tools  to deal with stress and mental health issues in the same way they deal with other medical problems.

What about companies taking more interest in their employees’ wellbeing and making an effort to combat the causes of work-based stress?

We don’t want to go the way of America where stress is considered the norm and work-life balance is now work-life merge (thanks largely to high flying female executives).

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Flexible working not for everyone

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geek_icon_1600_wht_9297Flexible working seems to be on the increase, desired by many workers, and even welcomed by many employers.

However it seems that many Generation Y (those born between 1980s and early 1990s) employees think people who work flexibly are not as committed to their jobs as those who work from the office every day.

At least according to a survey by a company of employment solicitors.

They found that while Generation Y employees were quick to complain about discrimination they were also more likely to display hostile attitudes towards equality policies.

The report said it reinforced the reputation of these younger workers as being “awkward” and “difficult to manage“.

It does seem a paradox that these Generation Y employees, who love their technology (ideal for flexible working) and work-life balance are so disapproving.

Employee Engagement – the Dark Side

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IMG_1267Surely having employees highly engaged is a good thing isn’t it?

Recent research suggests that whilst high levels of work engagement ie high levels of energy and involvement in work, are good for the organisation – this might be at the expense of other areas of an employee’s life.

Engaged employees create their own resources, perform better, have a positive impact on colleagues, and have happier clients.

But “over engagement” can have negative consequences creating workaholic behaviour in employees so that they regularly take work home. In a Dutch study work engagement was positively correlated with working overtime. This in turn disrupts work-life balance leading to poor health outcomes.

In some cases the inner drive to work hard, even when the person doesn’t enjoy working overtime, can lead to burnout. People forget to rest or maintain their personal relationships.

So there is definitely a dark side to employee engagement. Research shows that more engaged employees are more likely to experience work-family conflict.

High levels of engagement might also have negative consequences at work over time. Highly engaged employees who are enthusiastic about their jobs may take on additional tasks and it’s well-known that supervisors would rather assign tasks to keen employees.

The end result is that the engaged employee becomes over-loaded and begins to suffer ill-health and job performance declines along with the level of engagement.

Leaders are key influencers in employee engagement and because it is contagious engagement can spread across work teams. So leaders have a responsibility to be considerate and use a more transformational leadership style whilst providing social support and coaching.

Source: European Journal of Work and Organisational Psychology V 20 No 1 Feb 2011

Working from home

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carrying_house_pc_1600_wht_4461Given the choice would you rather work from home or commute to work?

In snow bound conditions this might be a no-brainer but generally speaking most people seem to prefer to go out to work rather than work from home.

Even though in Britain this increasingly means longer commuting times, getting stuck on concrete car parks known as motorways, or crushed like sardines in overcrowded commuter trains or metro/tube trains in uncomfortable not to say sometimes unhygienic conditions.

Experts suggest we lose many millions of pounds-worth of business each day due to bad weather in the winter and the country’s lack of preparedness for it.

So what happened to the technology revolution? Surely with lap-tops, wi-fi, smart phones, VOIP (like Skype)and video conferencing, file sharing and cloud technology, more of us should be able to work from home – or from the local coffee franchise. Or does that just apply to the so-called “nomads“: consultants of various kinds forever destined to travel the highways and by-ways, to whom e-traffic is just another hazard to navigate?

There are approximately 25 million people working but well under a million of those work from home. Leaving aside those working in production, manufacturing or retail, there are plenty of service and professional jobs you might think would be suitable for home-working,

One problem might be the slow inter-connectivity over the internet. The UK might have the most users of the internet per capita in Europe but we also have the slowest broadband speeds although ironically BT is one of the few employers which has experimented with home-working.

But it seems most employers like to see bums on seats and managers worry when they can’t supervise (from the latin to “over see“) and, some would say, micro-manage people.

Some research suggests that people are more productive at home – provided they can separate their work zone from their private zone and manage those boundaries to maintain work-life balance and confidentiality – because they don’t waste time commuting. In fact they might actually work harder so as not to be seen to abuse the system.

However we are social animals and it seems that we really need to have interaction with our colleagues – especially if we work in real teams, to enjoy those water-cooler moments, and, at this time of year particularly, the social activities which may be the high point of our work lives and the source of gossip to keep us going for months to come.