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Work life balance matters for young professionals

Posted on from Changeboard

The findings of research commissioned by the Association of Graduate Recruiters shows that work-life balance is a matter of real importance to young professionals early in their career, regardless of their personal circumstances.

Long hours still a problem

The potential implications of this study are significant. The research, a qualitative study based on interviews with 40 recent graduates from seven AGR member organisations, explored in depth attitudes to, feelings about and experiences of work-life balance. All of those interviewed set high store on being able to achieve work-life balance but, despite their interest in it, only around half of the interviewees said that they thought they had a good work-life balance at the present time.

This matters because the graduates also suggested that failure to achieve work-life balance was a serious issue that might make them think about changing jobs in the future.

Work-life balance is complex issue

The research indicated that there is a link between working long hours and lack of work-life balance: most of those who were least happy with their work-life balance were also working the longest hours. However, the issue of why young professionals feel that their work life-balance is not good enough is more complex than a straightforward relationship between hours worked and lack of balance. The research showed that this is because work-life balance means very different things to different people.

Three types of young professional

It identified three types of young professional in terms of how they defined work-life balance:

  • The first group saw work-life balance as being able to achieve a clear separation between work and their lives outside work, usually in terms of time spent at work and time spent on life outside work. This implied having a manageable workload and clearly defined working hours.
  • For the second group, achievement of work-life balance related to the belief that they had control over how they divided up their time between work and their life outside work. The members of this group were not so much concerned about the relative amounts of time they spent at work or outside and were happy to work long hours, as long as they felt that it was their choice.
  • For the third group, work-life balance concerned whether or not aspects of work affected their lives outside work. They considered that work-life balance existed when work did not affect their lives outside work, in particular in terms of stress or tiredness.

Work life underpinned by organisational culture

The argument that work intensification is contributing to graduates’ lack of work-life balance is supported by the fact that workload was the most common reason given by the graduates for having to work long hours. However, this is not a straightforward relationship either. In some of the organisations that participated in the research, the need to work long hours was closely linked to and underpinned by an organisational culture where long hours were seen as normal, as well as necessary.

Work life balance motivations

In such circumstances, regardless of workload, ambitious graduates’ could not afford to confine work within a standard working day, if they wished to get ahead in their career. This reinforced their view that it was sometimes necessary to sacrifice a proper work-life balance in the short term for longer term rewards.

The research also showed that it would be unfair to portray all graduates as a beleaguered group with little or no control over their work-life balance. Some worked hard to the extent that it affected their work-life balance simply because they really liked and enjoyed their jobs, while others managed to maintain a clear and strict separation between work and home, without compromising their commitment to their employer or their work.

Too much work and no play - side effects

Some were happy to spend time at work building their career, while others had carved out a work-life balance that suits them, regardless of work pressures. Nevertheless, given the number of young professionals that are not happy with their work-life balance, the research findings indicate that this is an issue that needs to be taken very seriously.

They confirm that the consequences of not having an acceptable balance between work and life outside are potentially damaging both to the individual and the organisation. The graduates who did not have a good work-life balance reported that this affected their physical and psychological health, their relationships with friends and family, their job satisfaction and their performance at work.

Resolution & responsibility

What is most important from an employer’s perspective is the finding that work-life balance may have an impact on how committed employees feel and ultimately whether they decide to stay with an organisation or not. Every single person interviewed said that they would have no hesitation in looking for a new job if at some point in the future they felt that their work-life balance had become untenable.

While it's not clear what this means in practice, especially since many graduates are already tolerating a less than ideal work-life balance, as an issue work-life balance has the potential at least to affect the retention of graduate recruits. This does not mean that organisations have a responsibility to ‘manage’ work-life balance for them. Young professionals and employers alike agreed that the primary responsibility for managing work-life balance lies with the individual; the organisation’s role is to facilitate this management, within the individual; the organisation’s role is to facilitate this management, within the parameters of the business context.

Make the case for better work-life balance

Practices such as flexitime, working from home and even annualized hours contracts that would aid this facilitation may be suitable for much larger numbers of employees in a broader range of business sectors than they have hitherto been used. It's up to employers to manage their human resources more creatively and up to individuals to make a case that both they and their work would benefit from recourse to practices like these that may allow them to have a better work-life balance.

Flexible practices and policies

The need to take work-life balance as an issue for today’s graduate recruits seriously is supported further by the fact that both men and women were conscious of how their ideas and needs regarding work-life balance might change once they had children. In particular, those who worked the longest hours and tolerated a poor balance between work and their life outside work were adamant that they would not continue to do so once they became parents. It's at this point that it may be difficult for organisations to retain graduates, who will of course by then be a highly experienced and valuable resource.

It's important that employers are able to deal with such future concerns and implement policies and practices that are flexible enough to satisfy them when they become reality.

‘Working to live, or living to work?’ is available from the AGR.

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