Stress and work-life balance: what companies can do to support their people
Last month was Stress Awareness Month. How did it feel for you? At Included we advocate for an awareness and reduction of stress at all times – but today we are running with the theme and wanted to explore one area of our working lives that can impact our experience of stress: a healthy work-life balance. We look at the experience of one demographic in the workplace and ask, what can companies do to make work-life balance work?
What do we mean by ‘work’?
A brief review of the history of work, and contemporary experiences of work around the world reveals that there is no single concept of what work should be, or how we might find balance between paid work and other activities. The concept of the five-day working week is less than 100 years old in the west, whilst in China it is less than 30 years old. Advocates for a shorter working week are gathering significant momentum with Iceland an early adopter and a large-scale study of a four-day in the UK producing positive results. Regardless of the length of our week, our relationship to work changes over our lifetimes.
For example, people who care for others have a different experience of work than those who don’t. The relationship between paid work and caring has itself changed significantly over time, and there are wide variances depending on which country you live in, your work status, when your caring responsibilities start or how caring responsibilities are supported by government policy. Some policies designed to support a positive work-life balance, such as parental leave or flexible working, affect people differently depending on their status and demographic, even within the same company. The seniority of our role, the level of psychological safety we feel with our colleagues, or our race, gender or disability often dictate how much benefit we can gain from so-called ‘universal’ polices.
There is no standard experience of work, or the balances required to live well, and this creates a challenge for employers who often focus on equality (giving everyone the same) rather than equity (acknowledging people’s different needs, and giving them what they need to achieve similar outcomes).
Are our workplace policies flexible enough to deal with the diverse needs of today’s workforce?
As a chief exec of an SME in the mid-2000’s I was responsible for maintaining effective and fair policies. My default position was ‘we won’t offer anything that we can’t offer equally to everyone’. In practice this was hard to enforce, and had we followed this approach our slate of policies would have been a couple of paragraphs long. HR directors and chief executives face a significant challenge when trying to build flexibility into their policy frameworks and often, out of an abundance of caution, we choose the ‘equality’ option, which can result in unequal experience for many.
Let’s consider the experience of women in the workplace. How do we acknowledge the fact that unpaid labour in the home falls disproportionately on women so a working mother is likely to be squeezing in an additional 20-30 hour week before 9.00 and after 17.00 every week day, and on weekends? Do our policies and practices reflect that? And what burden of proof do we need before we will act?
Do we need more data before we can change our policies?
There is sufficient and sustained evidence that women around the world bear an unequal burden of unpaid work, and there is an increasing volume of evidence about the physical and emotional impact of this inequality. At Included we believe that companies can acknowledge and mitigate this without requiring yet more evidence from their workforce. I was working with a client recently who said ‘What if we just created a policy which said no meetings before 10.00 or after 15.00?’ The women in the room got it immediately. There would be an instant practical and emotional benefit.
For example, it would mean an end to car journeys from school racing to make that early morning meeting or feeling unprofessional about asking colleagues to rearrange meetings to suit their caring needs. It also would be an acknowledgement that the work women do outside of work is both valuable to society, and requires some adjustments by those without similar responsibilities. Is this a change your company could make that would benefit your workforce? We flex meeting times to accommodate colleagues in different time zones without thinking twice, maybe we can build in the same benefit for people with caring needs without them having to ask, and without us needing to run a staff survey first.
Taking an inclusive approach increases belonging
Whilst building infinite flexibility into our people policies to address the potential needs of every employee might be impractical, taking a watchful, pro-actively inclusive approach to our business practices can communicate to our teams that we see them and their needs, and we are willing to accommodate them. The belonging dividend from this approach is worth the micro-adjustments it takes to implement them. Why not give it a try.