…work follows most people beyond the office with men especially reporting more “spillover” than women. Yet, in a seemingly contradictory finding, three-quarters of those surveyed said they were satisfied with the bargain struck between work and life. (emphasis added)
The seemingly contradictory statistics run like this: around half of workers say that work interferes with ‘activities outside work’ (combining ‘sometimes’ and ‘often/almost always’) and with ‘community connections’. Sixty percent think that it ‘interferes with ‘enough time for family and friends’. Only 16% say that they ‘never/rarely’ feel rushed for time. Yet 75% say that they are satisfied with their work-life balance.
The missing concept that leads journalists to think these results are contradictory – and a concept that is missing rather too often from labour market analysis – is trade-off. There are more worthwhile things that most of us would like to do than we can fit in a day, a week, or even a life, and this means that we cannot maximise them all in the same time period. Yet we can be satisfied with our overall work-life balance because given the objectives we have we are content with the trade-offs we have made.
This is evident in the statistics provided in Work and Life Index report. People with kids are significantly more likely than those without to report feeling rushed for time and that work interferes with activities outside work. Yet the two groups differ only slightly in satisfaction with work-life balance: 73%/77%. Having kids is a huge time commitment, but parents know that before they have children and presumably think the trade-offs are worthwhile.
Like people with kids, respondents earning $90,000 plus a year are more prone than people who earn less to feel rushed for time and that work interferes with activities outside work. High incomes are typically associated with long work hours. Yet their satisfaction with work-life balance matches the overall average – probably because the extra money and/or a more interesting job compensates for losses elsewhere. Given the practical options they face, three-quarters think that their trade-off is the right one.
This is consistent with results from the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes that I reported earlier this year, in which far more people said they would like to spend more time with their families than said they were prepared to take less money in exchange for working fewer hours. In a constraint-free world, people would like to spend more time with their families and to keep their current income. But given the reality of constraints, people make choices that maximise overall satisfaction.
Long work hours were also analysed in more Mark Wooden research from the HILDA survey, which was reported earlier in the week. Though people working long hours do poorly in the Work and Life Index (which combines answers to the various questions about the effects of work on life) Wooden’s research shows that for men at least working long hours is associated with a lower risk of marital break-up (long hours workers are mostly men).
This is perhaps partly because the family as a whole, and not just the workers, accept that trade-offs need to be made – that Dad’s earnings are worth seeing less of him. Also, because HILDA is a panel study we can see that though nearly 40% of people worked 50+ hours a week in at least one of the five years of the study, less than 10% worked 50+ hours in all five years.
Wooden aside, almost everyone working in the work-life balance field thinks that more should be done to protect family life from employment. Yet the actual research persistently casts doubt on whether policymakers can possibly do as well as workers themselves in managing trade-offs between their various objectives at any one time and over time.