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Striking the right work-life balance

| Text: Karen Albertsen

There's a lot of focus on finding a balance between work and private life these days. Despite all the good intentions, it is hard to imagine real change will come about before we seriously address the difficulties in getting the right mix of family and working life. There is now considerable scientific documentation showing heavy work loads and unsociable working hours make it hard to find time for family life.

The Nordic Council of Ministers just published an English-language report on the social consequences of various ways of organising work (1).

The Nordic countries have so far managed to outdo the rest of Europe when it comes to  combining high levels of employment for women and high fertility rates. People are also happy with their work-life balance. Much of the reason for this lies in a well developed welfare system with good care facilities for both children and the elderly.

Nordic countries: good work-life balance, bad stress

Workers in the Nordic countries enjoy moderate working hours and generally have a real say over the intensity of work as well as work scheduling. The exception to the rule is Iceland, where average working hours are very long.

At the same time work tends to be intense and a considerable number of people struggle with stress, sleep issues and irritation. This has all been documented by reports based on EU statistics. 

The new working life, good and bad

The labour market in the Nordic countries is generally geared towards 'the borderless working life', where employees enjoy high levels of power to make changes to where and when work is done and have good control of the work's content. This system does demand a lot from workers in terms of commitment, productivity and personal insight.  

The report gathers results from the relatively low number of studies which focus on aspects of the new working life. On the one hand, most of this research points out, the freedom to choose where and when you want to work is positive for the work-life balance. On the other hand there is often a link between flexibility and large, unpredictable demands, less job security and longer working hours. 

Long working hours - bad balance

The report presents strong evidence for a link between long working hours and a bad work-life balance, as well as low emotional contentment. Working more hours than you are contracted to work (regardless if you work part or full time) also has a bad impact on the work-life balance. 

This is especially the case for women. There are considerable gender differences in this area, reflecting the imbalance between the sexes when it comes to paid work and domestic work. Some research also points out that high demands in the work place has as much negative impact on the work-life balance as long working hours.  

Unsociable hours - bad balance

The report also finds evidence that unsociable working hours impact negatively on the work-life balance an on emotional contentment. Such work can also have negative consequences for children's happiness and marital bliss and stability. A large American three-year study concluded people working shifts suffered a 57 percent increased risk of divorce. A Canadian study found more cases of emotional or behavioural problems among children of parents working unsociable hours. But no matter the social and emotional consequences, unsocial working hours cannot be avoided altogether. 

Still, in the view of an emerging 24/7 society, it is important to remember that more and more people will demand access to services during unsociable hours. Having the power to influence your own working hours gives a better balance, but is no miracle cure. Many studies show there is improved work-life balance and emotional contentment when you control your own working hours. Yet other large studies using good controls for other factors in the working environment show no link between the level of influence on working hours and work-life balance. This could be because the jobs where people enjoy the greatest influence over their hours also tend to be the jobs where employees must adapt to the company's production needs.

Increased influence is good for those who didn't enjoy a lot of influence to start with, but flexible working hours are of little use when the job load is far too big. There are only so many hours to the day.

Intervention studies show positive results

There are just a few intervention studies in this field, but those that do exist show good results. One Swedish study looked at the effect of reducing the working day to six hours with full compensation. 

After one year the test group showed improvements in terms of having spare time for social activities, friends and family, they improved their attitude to their working hours, showed less tiredness and fewer problems with sleep, and suffered fewer heart and respiratory symptoms. The control group showed no changes.

A Danish intervention study found positive effects when an open rota was introduced in a hospital ward.  Compared to the control group, the intervention group showed improved contentment with the working hours, a reduced tendency to change shifts, it reported improved work-life balance, job satisfaction, social support and a feeling of companionship. 

Conclusion

If the Nordic countries wish to keep up their combination of high levels of employment for women and high fertility rates, as well as good work-life balance, we need to cut down on unsociable hours and adapt work loads to working hours for both men and women. That way you can combine work with a well-functioning family life. A family-friendly work place and a good psychological work environment can also make a difference. Men and women should be offered the opportunity to work part time without loosing out career-wise, and people should be allowed to pursue a career after the age of 35. There is also a close link between an improved work-life balance and a more just division of labour between the sexes.

Even though the Nordic countries are better placed than the rest of Europe, we still have some way to go before we can brag about our gender equality. 

 (1) Albertsen K, Kauppinen K, Grimsmo A, Sørensen BAa, Rafnsdóttir GL,Tómasson K. Working time arrangements and social consequences -What do we know? Nordic Council of Ministries; 2008. Report No.: TN2007:607.

 

Facts

The report 'Working time arrangements and social consequences - What do we know?' is a Nordic cooperation project carried out between 2005 and 2007, financed by the Nordic Council of Ministers.

The project head has been Senior Researcher Karen Albertsen from Denmark's National Research Centre for the Working Environment, with participation from the other Nordic countries: Professor Bjørg Aase Sørensen and Senior Researcher Asbjørn Grimsmo from the Oslo Work Research Institute, Professor Kaisa Kaupinen, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, Lecturer Gudbjörg Linda Rafnsdóttir University of Iceland and Medical Director Kristinn Tómasson, Administration for the Occupational Health and Safety, Iceland.

The report is based on literature found in large databases like PSYC-info and Pub Med, supplemented with other relevant literature. The report comprises results from more than 85 studies.

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