Everyone loves to talk about work/life balance – whether that’s a celebrity in a magazine sharing how they juggle work with family or a colleague boldly announcing over a Pret baguette that they’re self-imposing an email ban after 7pm.
Making our working lives easier so that our personal lives can be better is one of the hottest topics in the working world right now, if the figures are anything to go by. Thirty-seven percent of UK businesses have dealt with an increased number of stress-related absences in the last year alone. The number of staff leaving the NHS in pursuit of a better work/life balance has tripled in the last six years. Companies are increasingly opting for flexible working hours in a bid to retain staff and most media coverage of the problem is fixated on finding ways to do good quality work in less time.
While it’s impossible to deny that time management and finding that ever elusive balance is one of the great challenges of modern living, something glaringly obvious seems to have been forgotten: that not everyone has the luxury of doing so.
A quick search of the phrase 'work/life balance' on Google proves this point. Every article, research paper and piece of advice from a mental health institution assumes that 'work' means a salaried, corporate role. There are suggestions such as "working smarter, not longer", speaking to managers about workload or carving out more personal time in the day for exercise – nothing on how to look after yourself when you’re working 60 hours a week in a job that barely enables you to make rent.
The problem with the existing idea of work/life balance is that it doesn’t take into consideration the people working in low-paid, long-hour shift jobs, for whom the whole concept is a distant dream. The current narrative assumes that time – rather than money – is the most pressing issue, leaving all discussion on the subject of work/life balance feeling distinctly middle class-oriented.
Despite how much we might like to deny it, class is still very much an issue in Britain today.
The last Low Pay Commission report in 2017 estimated that 1.9 million jobs were being paid at or below the national minimum wage, making up around 6.7% of all employee jobs. Sure, this might not seem like a lot on first inspection, but consider this: for every 100 employees, almost seven are getting by on minimum wage or below. And it doesn’t look like there will be an improvement for these people any time soon – the CIPD’s UK Working Lives report found that the typical 'stuck' worker occupied a low-skilled role and was far less likely to be given training and development opportunities than a 'squeezed' or 'satisfied' worker (who are typically middle or top management professionals). These 'working class' roles are often the most physically demanding too, yet little is offered in the way of supporting the personal wellbeing of the people who carry them out.
"My shifts are usually 10 hours long and I take on extra hours wherever I can to make ends meet," says Jess Jones, a cleaner from Weybridge. "Between that and looking after the kids, I barely remember to eat, let alone think about pampering myself. When I’m not at work I spend most of my time worrying about money – it’s a constant thought in the back of my mind and kind of taints everything I do." Coming last on a long list of priorities isn’t uncommon – particularly for single mums who’re trying to hold down the fort both at work and at home.
It’s not just service industry jobs, either. Thanks to the prevalence of unpaid internships and unliveable wages – particularly in creative industries – many women whose jobs would be considered middle class on the surface take home less than the minimum wage when you work out their hourly rate. This is compounded when you add into the mix that most of this kind of work is in London – where the cost of living is exceptionally high.
Between that and looking after the kids, I barely remember to eat, let alone think about pampering myself.
Katie, a London PR, found herself looking for all the extra work she could get, despite already working full-time hours, just to keep up with her living costs:
"In the first months of my job I was counting my hours, so any free time in between was spent scouring websites for other job vacancies to make more money. Now I have a fixed salary but it’s still just enough to pay rent and bills, so taking time off to travel or go on holiday doesn’t tend to be worth the stress or guilt of worrying about that money. I never can seem to justify taking holidays, going out for dinner or doing much for myself when it comes to recreational activities because quite simply it doesn’t feel within my means. Even in the moment when it feels like it could be, my better judgement tells me to save that money for a rainy day or the free time to search for more work."
I never can seem to justify taking holidays, going out for dinner or doing much for myself because it doesn’t feel within my means.
It’s not just about current circumstance, either. Many women who have successful careers still struggle with the concept of work/life balance if they come from a working class background.
Sonya Barlow, the cofounder of networking group Like Minded Females, watched her parents work hard after arriving in the UK with "little to no funds".
"I’m a first generation British Asian woman and my parents are working class, which has no doubt impacted and influenced my graft: working full-time in tech and running two side businesses [at the same time]. Work/life balance is probably seen by those privileged few who have a foundation to fall back on. The majority of the UK population aren't those people, and with 42% of us now having side hustles, real work/life balance is a myth."
As Sonya highlights, many of us are hazy on what work/life balance actually means. It’s a variable, rather than fixed concept – as much about being able to separate work from home as it is about squeezing in a massage or lie-in every once in a while.
"I don't believe work/life balance is just a middle class privilege," says Laura Weaving, the founder and MD of Duo Global Consulting, a behavioural business consultancy firm. "People tend to view the concept as the ability to work less, but for me it is less about the hours you work and more about actually ensuring the time you do have off is quality."
Rosie Davies, the founder of PR agencies LFA and PR Dispatch, agrees. Having grown up in a household that lived "paycheque to paycheque," Rosie now considers herself to live a middle class lifestyle with a working class attitude: "I still have the same working class mentality even if my income has changed. I believe that anyone can have a great work/life balance if they want it; I had a great one even when I was working at McDonald's full time. Finding happiness in the activities you do is key in my opinion and doesn’t have to cost the earth to achieve."
Perhaps therein lies the truth: work/life balance is more about a mindset than any physical activity but is undeniably one that people with less financial strain find easier to achieve.
It’s not impossible, though. Samantha Ettus is a bestselling American author, speaker, TV contributor and syndicated radio host, widely known as a work/life balance expert and successful businesswoman. She agrees that work/life balance is rarely high on the priority list for those living in difficult circumstances, but can be achieved by anyone with the right frame of mind:
"If you are concerned about where your next meal comes from, work/life balance often feels like a luxury. Most likely you couldn’t spend any less time at work and still support your family, so you need to look at the time you do have rather than the time you don’t have. Let’s say you have only one day a week to spend with your family: make a plan in advance and talk about it throughout the week. Make it something to look forward to, whether it’s a picnic or a trip to the countryside. Having a plan in advance bonds you with your loved ones. The more you plan the little time you do have, the more you can make the most of it. And with a schedule like yours, guilt has no place in your life. You simply don’t have time for it. Instead, aim to be present wherever you are."