Work/life balance needs to grow into sustainability

Just as government is reigning in the excesses of the financial sector over the last decade or so, there is a strong movement to pull back on the workload excesses. Some of this is through the work/life balance movement.

In terms of occupational health and safety, this movement has a strong base that is reflected in a lot of OHS legislation where individual employees have a responsibility to ensure they are working safely and not putting themselves at risk. This can be a very difficult obligation when one is working in an organisation that does not grant safety or mental health or its social obligations much weight.

Just as government is reigning in the excesses of the financial sector over the last decade or so, there is a strong movement to pull back on the workload excesses.  Some of this is through the work/life balance movement.

In terms of occupational health and safety, this movement has a strong base that is reflected in a lot of OHS legislation where individual employees have a responsibility to ensure they are working safely and not putting themselves at risk.  This can be a very difficult obligation when one is working in an organisation that does not grant safety or mental health or its social obligations much weight.

The (unscrupulous) greed of corporations established a culture where health and safety could be compensated for financially.  It established a set of values that many employees absorbed, particularly those employees who came to this culture as their first real occupation.  Job satisfaction became equated to the accumulation of wealth with health and safety to be something that is dealt with later.

The work/life balance movement’s biggest impediment, in these early days, is that it continues to encourage action at the individual level.  This often leads to the individual needing to sacrifice career progression for the sake of family or sanity or health which can then lead to guilt over that decision.

Sacrifice is a frequent term in the work/life lexicon and one that says a lot about the work/life movement.  Society has allowed the evolution of a schism between working life and non-working life that the work/life balance movement is not addressing.  They remain two elements on the extremes of the balance scales.

At the moment work/life balance is tolerated by companies, not embraced.  If it were to be embraced, the fundamental structures of labour would require examination and companies may realise that they have been exploiting their workers, even though that exploitation was accepted by employees as part of the workplace culture.  Any company that says it values its staff or “our people are the most important asset to the success of this company” should  be scheduled for a “labour audit” to determine if the rhetoric matches the reality.  In almost all cases, companies that do value their workers should have no need to crow about it.

It is also important to remember that the work/life balance movement has also only appeared with the decline of manufacturing in the Western World.  It is not an issue in the developing countries at the moment where work is life and there is no luxury of even separating the two.

One of the keys to institutional change in companies will come through enlightened human resource professionals who are not afraid to challenge their employers’ dominant culture.  These professionals need to decide whether they simply manage personnel or are constructive contributors to the sustainability of the company.

In Australia, England and the United States, “green jobs” is the political message of the moment.  (Significantly there is little discussion on “safe green jobs”.  The OHS profession has missed the boat again)  This jargon is too narrow and it is important to note the absence of “sustainability” from the political lexicon.

Global and corporate sustainability is required if the world is going to continue to be habitable and functional.  The work/life balance movement needs to also be describing its strategy as providing individuals with a sustainability.  “Sustainability” may just prove to be the concept that unites the disparate labour, social and political elements to provide an overall balance.

Kevin Jones

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