The work-life balance paradox

The second work and life index report, written up at great length in this morning’s Fairfax broadsheets, has the usual left-familist calls for ‘firmer employee rights around controlling their working time’.

But it also has the same paradox as the first report: though most people say that they often or always feel rushed for time, and a quarter say work often or always interferes with enough time for friends and family, only 13% say that they are ‘not satisfied’ with their work-life balance, and nearly 70% say they are satisfied.

As I suggested last year, this study is missing a sense of the trade-offs people make. They should ask a lot more about how people feel about the work they do, not just in its personal rewards (money etc), but in how people see it contributing to something worthwhile.

In the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, for example, about two-thirds of respondents agree or strongly agree with the statement that ‘my job is useful to society’, and nearly three-quarters agree or strongly agree with the statement that ‘in my job I can help other people’. 70% say they are proud to work for the firm or organisation that they do, and 60% say they are prepared to work harder than they have to for it to succeed.

People derive satisfaction from their work as well as their home life, and do not want to let down the people who rely on their work. Indeed, the term ‘work-life’ is highly loaded: work is an integral part of life.

This is not to deny that individuals can get themselves in situations where things genuinely are out of balance. But this will usually sort itself out over time without the help of regulators. The first HILDA statistical report, for example, found that over a three year people 17% of their sample had reported dissatisfaction with their work-non-work balance. But less than 3% had reported this dissatisfaction in all three years. These longitudinal surveys are invaluable correctives to snapshot-in-time surveys, which often give an exaggerated view of the scale of problems by not capturing their transitory elements.

6 thoughts on “The work-life balance paradox

  1. I really wonder about the validity of these indexes. Apart from the life-satisfaction issues you mention, there are sure to be issues to do with the types of errors people make when confronted with complex problems also. My bet is that a lot of the people who say they would like to work less for less money haven’t actually thought through the ramifications of that in the short term very hard, let alone the long term (e.g., how they intend to retire, what it will do to their careers etc.). Many people find these sorts of complex trade-offs extremely hard to evaluate — Perhaps they would need to live on their new amount for a while to really understand that. I imagine that this is a reason apart from overall life satisfaction that we don’t see mass defections of the population into part-time work.


  2. Conrad – I can’t see the actual questions or results for the work less for less money finding, but given that it seems mainly to apply to those working 48 hours a week plus it is possible that a significant number of respondents are already earning good money and could do with less. And the HILDA data suggests that either or both of people do over time move to less intense jobs or the hours in their current job become more reasonable.


  3. I’m sure people do get into more reasonable jobs as they age — but I’m still somewhat wary of how much variance this would account for in terms of why it is happening (many people just start working less in jobs they do because they either become so good at them that they are more efficient, or because they stay at companies long enough such that they become more valuable and are therefore not expected to work unreasonable hours).

    One reason I suspect this is because, in general, the more people earn, the more they are willing to extend their finance such that they need more.

    For example, if you look at housing finance,


    then what you find is the rather paradoxical result that the higher income you have, the more likely you are to not own your house. Now if I think about low income groups, perhaps that isn’t surprising since the data is going to be skewed by pensioners and so on. But the middle vs. high group data is more surprising. This data also seems to fit well with what I’ll just call the whining rich phenomena (rich/middle class people claiming to be poor due to high levels of indebtedness).

    Given these sorts of results, I wonder to what extent many of the people who work a lot of hours (who also tend to be well off) really could cut back without changing their lifestyles. If you owe a lot on your overpriced house, have, say, two kids in private schools, expect to go overseas every year for a holiday and so on, you may well really need most of the money you earn. Whilst cutting back might seem good in your own mind, when the reality hits (sending to your kids back to a crappy public school etc.) I’m sure it would be easily changed.


  4. Conrad – Though there are life cycle things in there, eg school fees, that would enable people to cut back when they are gone. Though I agree it is hard to go too far back once you have had more money.

    I haven’t read carefully the ABS link, but the home ownership statistics are aslo heavily influenced by life cycle factors. The elderly are both likely to own their home and to have low current incomes, while younger people with much higher annual incomes are still repaying their mortgages.


  5. I definitely agree with you that work is an integral part of life but we should not make it the only constituent of our lives either. A mixed bag of work and family really makes life a great journey.


  6. Here’s a recent poll result by comparison – 72% of Americans say they are happy and satisfied with their lives. 65% of Americans say they are worried about potential health care costs for their families, and within that 48% say they are ‘very worried’. Given that half of all personal bankruptcies and 40% of foreclosures are related to healthcare costs, such fears are not illusory.

    One could suggest that the happiness/satisfaction result measures, at least in part,a degree of accommodation and fatalism. I’d suggest a result – as with the work/life balance above – that combines abstract questions – are you happy – with concrete ones – is the work/leisure mix agreable to you – can only be meaningfully read as a measure of people’s lowered expectations of life, if concrete satisfaction is significantly exceeded by abstract satisfaction. Cleaving to abstract notions of happiness/satisfaction measures the ways in which people’s expectations have been systematically limited for political and economic purposes, not any general ‘character’ of the people or the era


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