I welcome Nigel Marsh’s assertion that commercial companies should not be in charge of addressing work-life balance because they are designed to “get as much out of you as they can”. International comparisons suggests that the statutory requirements set by the state can make significant differences to the likelihood of people taking leave to spend time with their family. In our study of low-waged mothers working in the food retail sector (Working and Caring), work-life balance was achieved through choosing to work part time, accepting the struggle of reduced income, and through mutual support amongst women workers who helped each other out by swapping shifts in times of crisis, like a child being ill. Those with somewhat better paid albeit still low income jobs with supervisory responsibility found these kinds of crises much harder to deal with – they were the ones relying on the company’s work-life balance policies for support.
Nigel emphasises his role as a father but Lynn Jamieson reflected that work-life balance and making time for friends and family is an issue for all workers not just for those with children. In a briefing (Work-Life Balance Across the Lifecourse RB21 2005) based on our 2004 international conference on this topic, she also concluded that inequalities of gender, class, and ethnicity affect ways in which work-life issues will be experienced, and the ability to balance the demands of work with other needs. It is great to hear well-paid men like Nigel Marsh tackle the issues, but his experiences and recommendations may not translate to people in different circumstances.
In the end how we experience work-life balance is dependent on a mixture of state polices, individual circumstances and cultural factors. Our individual place in relation to these will be defined by how we relate to these norms and assumptions particularly in relation to gender roles and how men and women play their part in household, family and friendship responsibilities.
Written by Sarah Morton and Lynn Jamieson based on CRFR research:
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