work-life merge

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.

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!

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.

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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Work less stressful than being at home

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carrying_house_pc_1600_wht_4461It seems that the idea of “work-life balance” (threatened recently by female American CEOs espousing “work-life merge“) is now so dated.

New research indicates that for many people the workplace is where they are happiest. Of course it’s always been known that some people go to work to get away from an unhappy home life and that people who hate their jobs stay away as often as they can get away with.

But it seems more people are seeing the work-place as a refuge, somewhere where they feel valued; putting off going home to children and partners demanding their time and expecting them to share the domestic duties when they’d rather be at the bar with their colleagues after work.

Or if they are single avoiding going home to an empty space with nothing very satisfying to do. This all sounds rather bleak but Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of Berkeley, California looked at Fortune 500 companies and discovered that many people didn’t want to take advantage of part-time working, paternity or maternity benefits, and other family-friendly options.

Whilst acknowledging that their families came first (?) they saw the workplace as an escape from the demands of home life. The same applied for single and child-free employees. Many people actively choose to be at work.

It was Hochschild who coined the term “second shift” for the work that women in two-career families have to do when they go home at night. For these women work was a less stressful environment than being at home.

Furthermore about 20% of people she interviewed in her book “Time Bind” said they felt more supported and appreciated and work was the place where they could be “themselves“. One male executive is quoted as saying he found it easier to deal with his “office children” than his actual children.

Researchers at Penn State University have backed up this qualitative research with some  hard science. They recruited 122 men and women (average age = 41) who were employed on a 5-day week with weekends off. About 50% of them  were slightly better off than most middle-income earners ($30k -$75k a year). Roughly half of them were married and half of those had children living at home.

Over a 3-day period each participant gave a saliva sample which was tested for the level of cortisol, a stress hormone.  Each participant was also asked 6 times a day how happy they felt and how much stress they were under.

The researchers found that cortisol levels, a biological marker of stress, were significantly lower at work than at home, indicating lower levels of stress at work.

Although this goes against the idea that work is stressful it supports the fact that people who work have better levels of mental and physical health than people who don’t work.

Sarah Damaske, a co-author of the report, said that previous research showed that mothers who worked steadily through their 20s and 30s report better physical and mental health than part-time or non-working mothers.

Other interesting discoveries were:

  • The fact that women as well as men had lower stress levels at work suggest that they might get more out of being at work; women report themselves happier there than men who report the opposite.
  • Parents had lower levels of stress at home but there was less difference for non-parents.
  • Lower income people reported less stress at work but there was no difference in higher-earning people.

Lower income people might enjoy the distractions of being at work and socialising then face up to the reality of domestic duties and unpaid bills when they get home.

In some workplaces being in a team can be very supportive, being made  a fuss of on your birthday and having social events can be fun. People even get the chance to flirt, have affairs and meet their future partners!

Damaske says that the type of stress people suffer at work is different from that which they suffer at home. Families can be a source of pleasure as well as worry. At work we have some control over things as we can go home every night and if things get really bad change jobs. Not so easy with family commitments!

Especially for women pulling that “second shift“. Modern partners might do more than their parents did but men still don’t do the same share as women. The fact that stress levels drop at the weekend suggests it’s the balancing of competing work and home demands that is challenging.

Brigid  Schulte, author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play when no-one has the time” expresses no surprise at the results. “The lives of women have changed almost completely in the past 40 years and the world around them has hardly changed at all. Women are still expected to do as much if not more at home as they always have, So many are trying to compete with men who don’t have the same responsibilities at home“.

Schulte thinks technology might help in future by allowing people to work in more flexible ways and  give managers the ability to assess performances accurately without worrying about how many hours people have worked.

I think that’s unlikely. There is already evidence that Gen Y employees resent people who use flexible working arrangements and many managers don’t trust employees to work from home. As for performance assessment, it might work at the level of simple repetitive jobs but all the evidence is that for jobs requiring problem-solving, creativity or other high functioning processes it doesn’t work.

Main Source: The Times ‘Body & Soul‘ 6 September 2014