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Making choices between policies and real lives

Wrapping up 2014, the EU year of Workplace Reinvention, once again brings worklife balance (WLB) policies into focus. These policies, including parental leave, rights to reduced hours, and flexible work hours, are now part of European law and national laws inside and outside of Europe. For example, Japan has similar WLB policies in place.

The existence of these rights does not always, however, reflect the capabilities of individuals to claim them without risk to their careers, and even job loss, particularly when so many companies are downsizing. There is a gap between policies and practices, and, more broadly, a widening gap between aspirations for worklife balance—for more time for family, friends, and leisure activities—and the pressures for greater productivity and increased work intensity, alongside the growing numbers of insecure and precarious jobs. For men, this gap has become more tangible due to changing norms and expectations for them to be more involved fathers and the persistence of gendered norms around caring and earning in the workplace. Research, including the European Social Survey 2010, reveals that when looking for a job the overwhelming majority of men (as well as women), place a high priority on reconciling employment with family. They also show that majority of working fathers would choose to work less hours even if it meant a corresponding loss in hourly pay. Still, between 40-60% of them in European countries are working more than 40 hours a week (European Social Survey in 2010).

Firm and work organizational culture has become the central focus in worklife balance research, with a particular focus on increasing flexibility (flexi-times and flex workplaces) and telecommuting. Flexible working times, once a perk for the valuable worker, have been embraced by many firms as the hallmark of new management and work organization. It is a cornerstone in EU policy and discourse on WLB. In June, the UK granted all employees the right to request flex time. Flexibility is presented as the win-win situation for achieving WLB, allowing for changes over the life course as well as individual preferences.

Family on Beach, Somerset by Into Somerset. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 via flickr

But does flexibility actually increase one’s scope of alternatives and choice in worklife balance? This depends on the job/sector, the skill and education of the worker; gender matters, as do national statutory provisions and the practices at firms. Consider the following example. Flexibility in working times and especially the possibility to reduce hours has enabled many mothers to combine employment with family, but there are career penalties since part-time jobs tend to be considered “dead end jobs”. Can one adjust working times over the life course? The European Survey on Working Times (firm level data) show that only 18% of firms offer full reversibility (the possibility to move from part-time to full-time and from full-time to part-time).

Within the current debates on worklife balance and flexibility we see two cross-currents. On the one side, there are switch-off policy initiatives in France, which seek to set limits on the number of hours that an employee can be “linked-in” (accessing work systems and emails). In Germany, the Westphalia region is considering banning office communications in the evenings and during vacations, a practice that has already been established by VW, BMW, and Deutsche Telekom, which banned after-hours calls and emails to workers. On the other side, the solution to WLB is cast in terms of total flexibility with employees setting the pace of work and schedules and telecommuting rather than traveling to work. Work becomes an activity, not a place; rewards are based on performance and results, not on the hours you put in at the workplace. In this vision of future work, the workplace would become superfluous and employment conditional on evaluated performance. Is this a workers’ utopia that would enhance the capabilities of individuals for a better WLB and quality of life? Or is this a scenario with high levels of uncertainty, longer working days, the removal of boundaries between working life and other spheres of life, and lastly, the loss of community among workers who interact at the workplace?

Headline image: Seconds Out by dogwelder. CC BY-NC 2.0 via flickr

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