Academic journal article Capital & Class

Like Summer and Good Sex? the Limitations of the Work-Life Balance Campaign

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Like Summer and Good Sex? the Limitations of the Work-Life Balance Campaign

Article excerpt

The work-life balance (WLB) campaign is situated within the Department of Trade and Industry (Dti), and was launched by the Prime Minister in March 2000. The campaign is supported by independent think-tanks such as the Work Foundation and by some large employers such as Sainsbury's. Its twofold aims are 'to convince employers of the economic benefits of work-life balance, by presenting real-life case studies; and to convince employers of the need for change'. It will campaign over the next five years to 'help employers provide people with more choice and control over their working time' (Dti 2003). It aims to do this by focusing upon tackling the long-hours culture in some parts of the UK work place; by targeting these sectors which have acute work-life balance problems; and to provide support, guidance and research upon these issues. Its overall aim is to help to 'readjust' the balance between work and life.

Research inspired by the WLB campaign provides lots of compelling evidence of how workers across all occupations are suffering both personally and in their family life from working too long hours. A third of fathers miss seeing their children grow up as they regularly work a 10-hour day. One in three fathers across all occupations regularly exceed the 48 hours working week set by the European Working Time Directive. 40 per cent of fathers start work between 6.30am and 8.30am and 45 per cent work between 5.30pm and 8.30pm. More than half work at least one Saturday a month and one in four work one Sunday a month (Duckworth 25/9/02, Joseph Rowntree Foundation 2002c). Amongst mothers who work in non-nine-to-five 'flexible' jobs, one in four felt the need for more time with their children and a third felt working hours limited the time they had to play with their children or help with homework (Ghazi 25/9/02). Many parents are working shift patterns that lead to the phenomenon of 'shift parenting' where at least one parent is at work for most of the day or night. Consequently traditional family practices such as having meals together and family days out are fast becoming a thing of the past in the '24/7' family. 88% of parents in dual-income families and 54% in single parent families frequently work in what are deemed to be traditional family times-before 8.30am and after 5.30pm (Ghazi 25/9/02). Employees are suffering stress as a consequence of 'marathon shifts' (Womack 30/8/02). Compelling evidence of the need to 'readjust' working practices for many people.

Melissa Benn has suggested that 'Being against work-life balance would be a bit like being against summer or good sex' (Benn 26/9/02). I am not against summer and good sex, nor am I against the WLB campaign. I have written this piece because I feel the WLB campaign, worthwhile though the sentiment is, has some fundamental limitations. Critical though this piece is, it is not written in a spirit of cynicism, but through a wish to highlight and overcome these limitations. There is a Japanese proverb which holds that the last animals to develop a concept of water would be fish. Because they cannot step outside of the particular medium that surrounds them, they cannot truly compare alternatives, and thus cannot understand the world they occupy. The WLB campaign suffers from a similar problem. It is characterised by an inherent and limiting managerialism.

This is in part because WLB initiatives and policies seemed mostly aimed at managers and executives who work long hours through a combination of interest in their job, career aspirations and general commitment to a profession. Many manual and unskilled workers work long or unsociable hours due to a much more formal and overt economic compulsion. The VCLB campaign has not always dealt with such issues adequately. For example, Hutton has argued that for many people work is the route whereby they express themselves. Work is where 'we hone our skills, meet our friends and future partners, where we act on the world' (Hutton 14/5/02. …

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