- amid the vast uncertainty of the pandemic era, one thing is clear: more than ever – and more than anything – people want a healthy work-life balance.
- In 2021, data from a survey of more than 9,000 UK workers showed 65% of job seekers prioritized work-life balance over pay and benefits.
- It’s similar in the US: of 4,000 respondents to the FlexJobs 2022 Career Pulse Survey, 63% said they’d choose work-life balance over better pay.
So what, exactly, does this term mean to workers right now? The definition of work-life balance has changed dramatically throughout the past several years, with the demise of strict 9-to-5 hours and increase in remote work.
Clocking Out Turning Off
The idea of work-life balance largely emerged during the widespread take-up of the eight-hour workday in the early 20th Century – something workers fought for through organizing and striking. As workers won the right to an eight-hour workday, work-life balance – even if it was not explicitly labeled as such – was commonly defined as the ability to compartmentalize job tasks and life. It was a big step – and one that remains critical to the central idea of work-life balance today. Ioana Lupu, associate professor of accounting and management at Paris’ ESSEC Business School, says the happiest professionals she speaks to manage to “compartmentalize, to disconnect, to switch off without guilt from work”.
Yet for many workers, this cut-and-dry barrier eroded as new technology arose at the turn of the millennium. As the internet, email and eventually smartphones found their way into the workplace, they changed not only the way workers got their jobs done, but also the shape and span of the workday. But rather than clawing back for these hard lines, says Lupu, corporate culture took up the mantle of overwork, and wore it as a badge of honor. “It became quite ideological, this idea that, being busy, being constantly available makes you a really good professional,” she says.
This emergence of hustle culture led to a de-prioritization of work-life balance for some employees. But the pandemic shifted this outlook again, especially with the integration of remote and hybrid work. Along with enabling workers to physically set up where they wanted, and with more flexibility, this transformation also meant workers’ personal lives entered their work lives in an unprecedented way – both good and bad.
In this new era, workers now see work-life balance as the capacity to bend work around their own, individualized list of priorities – this time, workers themselves are defining what actually constitutes ‘balance’, rather than companies. A balanced life integrates the personal and the professional in a healthy way, supporting an identity that includes the career, but doesn’t necessarily revolve around it. The pandemic’s wide-scale shake-up of the labor market empowered many employers to push employers for this balance. “There has been a definite increase in the request for work-life balance benefits,” says Patricia Graves, a senior certified professional and HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management (Shrm).
And beyond flexibility – which has been shown to increase productivity and happiness – workers are looking for other benefits to help foster a healthy integration of work and life. They expect their employer to foster an environment of empathy and recognition, and offer access to wellness and health resources. One recent Qualtrics survey of nearly 8,000 full-time workers in Asia, for instance, showed close to two-thirds feel their job is the main factor in their mental health.
Fertility support is also an increasing request: data from a survey by fertility company Carrot and The National Infertility Association shared that 59% reported fertility and family formation affected their work performance, nodding to the link between work and life. Indeed, 77% of these workers surveyed said availability of fertility support would affect their tenure at their companies, influencing them to stay or search for another job that offered these benefits.
Navigating The Future
A key component of the evolution of work-life balance is just how important these benefits are to workers. “Now, many people I talk to say, ‘Oh, if I didn’t have the flexibility, or the benefits, I’d just leave’,” says Lupu. Balance and flexibility have become such a priority for workers that many are making career moves based around these standards. It’s been a major driver of the Great Resignation, which in the US alone saw more than 50 million people leave their jobs in 2022, and nearly 48 million in 2021. Data from Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index Annual Report showed more than half of Millennial and Gen Z workers who quit cited either lack of work-life balance or lack of flexibility as the reason.
In the future, even the idea idea of how work and life co-exist could change, too. Perhaps, says Lupu, it’s not exactly accurate to call it work-life balance, or even work-life integration. “For me, it’s more like a work-life navigation.”
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