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Coming to terms with your work-life imbalance

By Marcus Beaver, UKI Country Leader at Alight Solutions

“The best thing young people can do early in their careers is to work on the weekends” tweeted one San Francisco-based venture capitalist recently. Whilst met with widespread backlash by millennials and Gen Z, the opinion sheds light on a pandemic trend impacting workers across every generation: that of an ‘always-on’ culture.

More than 40 years ago, country music legend Dolly Parton once sang “Working 9 – 5, what a way to make a living!” But the move to widespread remote work has made things much more complex in the modern age. While the positives are in abundance for remote working staff, it doesn’t come without its downfalls – employees are experiencing increasing day-to-day working hours, with some even working weekends on top of their five-day working week. The pressure is on, all too often, for employees to constantly be online.

The pandemic has shifted us to a never-ending workplace, and there are increasing calls from employees that something needs to change.

The fast track to burnout

One of the unintended consequences of the shift to home working has been a tendency for people to spend more time at their desks as workloads have increased. Recent research found the average working day for UK employees has increased by two hours – with the removal of the office’s physical perimeters, we’ve seen home workers take shorter lunch breaks, work through sickness, and generally feel the need to always be available as the boundaries between work and leisure time have blurred.

The circumstances of the past year normalised work-life overlap to some degree. For example, we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing family members and pets show up in the back of video calls. If you’re in the office, there’s a start and finish time which is generally adhered to unless there’s something urgent. However, the past year has seen the barriers between our work and personal lives diminish. This can have a real impact on the mental health and wellbeing of employees, and lead to increased rates of burnout among the workforce.

It’s a people challenge

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study from the Royal Society for Public Health found almost a third (29%) of employees feel remote work has had a negative impact on their wellbeing, with over half (56%) finding it difficult to switch off. To combat this, Apple recently announced its iOS 15 update will include a feature to silence late-night emails from the office with ‘Focus Mode’.

While technology can play a key role in helping to separate work from home, the nature of the challenge is ultimately centred around people. But junior employees or graduates fresh out of university are often too worried to speak out. And many would argue it is unfair for them to come up with the solution. Instead, leaders need to take charge and set the boundaries, which ultimately comes down to changes at the day-to-day level. For example, diary invites from clients to attend a call at 9:30pm should be declined by managers before they even reach junior staff. IT teams could even set a reminder after a certain time to not send emails after traditional working hours.

Taking a flexible approach

Businesses that wish to attract and retain the top talent must embrace a culture that ensures employees feel comfortable and supported in their life outside of the workplace. Despite this, a recent report from the CIPD found that while three-fifths (63%) of employers will be implementing hybrid work policies this year, fewer than half (48%) plan to support flexitime arrangements. Our own recent research shows that nearly two-thirds (65%) of workers want the flexibility to combine office working with working from home.

Businesses must be flexible with regard to their employees’ working arrangements, and support them with their time off needs. Here, recognising the flexibility required by many working parents and carers, who juggle work with family commitments on a daily basis, is essential. Whether it’s through job sharing, staggering start and finish times, or compressing working hours, flexibility will be key to sustaining a high performance team.

A right to disconnect

Attraction, retention and engagement are all influenced by an employee’s perception of the value of their benefits. For many workers, a high degree of personalisation is a growing expectation. As offices begin to reopen and businesses continue embracing a hybrid approach to work, employers cannot afford to remain tied to pre-Covid working practices.

Recognising burnout as an impending threat to the hybrid workplace, some countries are introducing “right to disconnect” practices to help uphold a healthy work-life balance. Ireland, for example, recently announced a code of practice that gives workers the right not to be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of their usual hours. Admirable as these efforts are, the onus must also be on businesses. There are seemingly small changes employers can make to ensure staff feel cared about and catered for. The working day is changing – but it cannot be all work, all the time.

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