Why are people satisfied with their work-life balance?

According to The Age‘s report of the first Australian Work and Life Index

…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.

9 thoughts on “Why are people satisfied with their work-life balance?

  1. 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.
    I’ve known people whose marriages survive precisely because they see less of each other! Choosing to work long hours to avoid problems at home and telling themselves and others that they are ‘forced’ to do this is almost stereotypical behaviour for some men.

    You’re spot on about the generally poor quality of the analysis of these issues, though.

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  2. “But given the reality of constraints, people make choices that maximise overall satisfaction” – that’s the point, for some people the constraints mean that there is effectively very little choice, they’re constrained by circumstances and other people’s choices.

    Agree with the above about limited time together being the saviour of marriages.

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  3. “for some people the constraints mean that there is effectively very little choice”

    Ah, Russell, here we go again. I’m afraid I just don’t get this people have no choice argument. What, someone is forcing them to work x hours a week, someone [else?] is forcing them to have babies so that they will then suffer from time stress? What constraints are you talking about exactly? As Andrew quite rightly points out, life consists of a series of choices and compromises because in the end it really is impossible to ‘have it all’.

    Who knows what is even going through people’s minds when they answer questions in surveys like these? I think I’m coming to be a stronger believer in revealed preference than I have been in the past – I’m really much more interested in what people do than what they say they would do is some ideal world that doesn’t exist.

    And I’m really getting quite tired of people telling me I should be miserable because my life isn’t perfect. Truth be told, I think there are lots of people who just get on with life and a smaller group who spend their time pining for an unobtainable nirvana.

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  4. Agree with DD and BG. I think it’s not just the extra income that working longer hours brings, but the extra status/job satisfaction people might get. I suspect a healthy relationship requires both parties to have a healthy self-esteem and working in a job they are proud of tends to be important for most men.

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  5. You know I find it interesting that Barbara Pocock actually conceptualises all of this as being a conflict between work and life as if work is not a big part of most people’s lives. I guess I can understand why she has rejected the Work/Family label, since presumably she wants to encompass people’s non-work interests and commitments other than family, but it is problematic isn’t it?

    Perhaps the reason that she gets the “seemingly contradictory” findings that she does is because most people in the community don’t understand that work and life are in fundamental opposition.

    It kind of amazes me that academics can spend so much time and effort to find out that if someone has the care of children and a job as well (whether demanding or not) that the two sometimes come into conflict. And that the younger your children are and the more of them you have, the more likely you are to suffer time pressures. Who woulda thunk it?

    You know, when all is said and done, when you add up paid work and caring work hours, both men and women do about the same on average, according to Barbara Pocock’s own data (52-53 hours a week). (Things may be more unequal in families with children, but men with children have almost as high a score on the work-life index as women with children.)

    I think this research has been designed to come up with a particular story – don’t forget that Barbara Pocock has already published a book entitled ‘The Labour Market Ate my Baby’, so I think it is fairly clear where she is coming from.

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  6. BG – Though Pocock is an interesting case, in that in this paper and to a greater extent in The Labour Market Ate My Babies there is a clear tension between Pocock the social scientist and Pocock the feminist ideologue. She’s upfront that people enjoy their jobs, and in the interviews with children she reports in the book she shows that though many of them would like to see more of their parents, they understand both the financial benefits to the family of their parents working and that their parents enjoy their jobs.

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  7. ““for some people the constraints mean that there is effectively very little choice”

    Ah, Russell, here we go again. I’m afraid I just don’t get this people have no choice argument. ”

    Did I say all people, or some people; did I say ‘have no choice, or have little choice ? I was making the point that not everyone has the same range of choices or ability to choose. Are the indigenous people in these blighted communities making choices “that maximise overall satisfaction.” ?

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  8. Russell, of course some people have more choices than others and I am generally in favour of policies that maximise the range of choices available to people (so-called equality of opportunity policies). All I’m saying is that in the broadest sense most if not all people do have quite a range of choices open to them. Which is not to say that the choices they make at one particular time (eg not to go ahead with their education, or to have one or more children) might not have an effect on the range of choices they might have in the future. But most people are not just helpless pawns at the mercy of forces beyond their control and the fact that, at any point in time, the majority report themselves as satisfied with their lives suggests to me that most people are content to live with the consequences of the choices they have made.

    When it comes to Indigenous people in remote communities, I agree that many have relatively few choices available to them, but there are still some – go to school or not, move away from the community in search of employment opportunities or not, spend this week’s welfare money on food rather than grog or gambling, etc. The point is that, even in the worst communities, people are making choices of some kind though I acknowledge that once you are addicted (to grog, drugs, petrol, gambling or whatever) your capacity to make useful choices (especially on behalf of children who rely on those choices) may be greatly diminished. This is a fact that many people prefer not to acknowledge in the current debate about whether and how Australian governments should intervene in indigenous communities.

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  9. Andrew – I agree with you about the tension in the positions that Barbara Pocock and many other feminist spokeswomen take in relation to the labour force participation of mothers.

    They are strongly in favour of changing the labour market in various ways to enhance the capacity of women to find their optimal combination of paid and unpaid work, but they continually fret about the fact that so many women choose to take time out of the workforce and/or work part-time, even going so far as to claim that feminism has failed because women’s labour force activity doesn’t match men’s. Witness Barbara Pocock’s apparent attempts to prove that part-time work is bad for women, despite the fact that women who work part-time nearly always come up as the most satisfied group.

    My view is that there will probably never be complete employment equality between men and women because in the end women will always have a (somewhat) greater preference for the parenting role than men.

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