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Thursday, 26 September, 2002, 16:25 GMT 17:25 UK
Can you achieve a work-life balance?

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    Some of the UK's largest firms - including Barclays, Dixons and Marks & Spencer - are taking part in a week of activities aimed at tackling work-related stress.

    The move is part of Work-Life Balance Week, which has been organised by the Work-Life Balance Trust.

    It is designed to promote the benefits of flexible working practices for staff and employers.

    The organisation says that at least one in 10 British workers has suffered from serious work related stress.

    The week follows a recent survey by the Department of Trade & Industry (DTI) which found that one in six people worked more than 60 hours a week, compared with one in eight two years ago.

    What questions do you have about achieving the life-work balance?

    If you want a 24 hour services are you prepared to work 24 hours a day? Does your company have work/life balance on their agenda? Does stress need to be reduced in the workplace? What advantage does a flexible workforce give corporations?

    You put your questions to Professor Len Shackleton, head of the University of Westminster Business School on 26 September 2002.



    Here to answer your questions of achieving a better work/life balance and putting things into a historical perspective is Professor Len Shackleton from the Business School of the University of Westminster in London.

    We're going to kick-off straight away with the e-mails we've received. One from David in the UK: Isn't stress what you make of it? We are bombarded by advertising and TV selling us the impossible dream that we can have it all. Well we can't!E ither work hard and get that flash car/big house/new TV or settle back and focus on what's really important.

    He raises the point, don't we create in a way our own stress?

    Professor Len Shackleton:

    It's probably true. I think people do want everything all at the same time and it is very difficult to do that. Expectations have risen, people expect more from their working life than they did in the past. It's very difficult to get any seriously objective measure of stress. You mentioned days lost, but of course that is smaller than the days lost through the common cold and so on. This is a problem but sometimes I feel that it has got out of perspective in some of the ways in which people approach this issue.


    Ian, UK asks: Has technology played a large part in increasing stress? Mobile phones, lap-tops have bred a corporate culture where key staff are supposed to be available 24/7 regardless of working hours?

    Professor Len Shackleton:

    I think that is the case. It's partly to do with new technology. I think another thing in the UK, if that's what we're talking about, is the sort of reforms which have taken place in middle-class life - in professional jobs - where particularly in the public sector, there is considerably more pressure on people to perform than there was in the past. I think a lot of middle-class people are much more aware of this issue than they were before.

    If we look back 20 years or so, around 150,000 miners underground, under an awful lot of stress. There were a lot of people in dangerous jobs in manufacturing, in extraction and so forth - they were stressed but their problems were perhaps not as much to the fore as the problems of the agonised middle-class.


    I suppose in a way the middle-classes are ones which are more likely to make a noise about things and shout about things and say I am stressed.

    Professor Len Shackleton:

    Indeed. They're the sort of people who are watching this programme and writing e-mails to you.


    Andy McIvor, Singapore asks: The lifestyle here in Singapore is work, work, work to the detriment of everything else. It hurts me to see how long they work, especially people who should be retired working late into the night. Don't you think we should be glad of the lifestyle most of us enjoy in the UK?

    I suppose he raises the point there that we complain about how hard we work in the UK but it's much worse in many other countries.

    Professor Len Shackleton:

    Well, it's certainly different. I think there is a culture in parts of continental Europe of having a much lighter working day. But in other parts of the world, Japan, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, all these countries work longer hours than we do.

    I think in some ways we have accommodated people's lifestyle choices to a greater degree than some other countries. For example, we have a very high proportion of people who work part-time in this country which is a form of flexible working which is not available on the same scale in a lot of other countries.


    You mentioned that on the continent the fact that they don't work as hard there it seems, certainly if one looks at the statistics. Why is that?

    Professor Len Shackleton:

    I think there is certainly a tradition in southern Europe of working - well partly due to quite basic things like temperature during the day etc - there is the siesta, the long lunch and so forth.

    There is also I think the case that in a lot of countries - Italy is one which comes to mind - the pressures on the public sector are nothing like as great. You have people doing jobs - civil servants in the Italian civil service, who have got other jobs in their spare time. There are not the pressures on them to perform in quite the way that there are in the UK.


    E. Morgan, UK asks: I used to lead a team in an oil and gas engineering consultancy in the centre of London with a long commute. I also have two teenage children. My bosses didn't listen to my pleas for a one to two days working from home. I resigned. My boss was shell-shocked. They could have easily retained me with a little bit more flexibility.

    Is this one of the key things here in terms of perhaps reducing the amount of stress is actually being a bit more flexible as an employer?

    Professor Len Shackleton:

    Yes obviously. I don't know the circumstances of this particular e-mailer. But certainly good businesses are aware of the need to accommodate the needs of their staff. Indeed, I think British business on the whole has been pretty good about doing this. There is a great deal of flexible working. What troubles me though is the idea that we need to regulate for this, that somehow the Government should impose this sort of model on businesses when in fact their needs may be very different.

    British Telecom is one the sponsors of the work/life balance week which we're in at the moment and of course they have a very wide range of jobs and they have the possibility for flexibility simply because of the large numbers which they employ. If you are a small business and remember something like 3 million people in this country are running small business of one kind, are self-employed or they're running with maybe two or three employees. Those sorts of people find it very much more difficult to respond to a regulation which says, you must do this or you must offer this degree of flexibility. So I would be against the state trying to regulate this.


    Claire Robinson, (aged 14) UK: After listening to news it seems that parents with children under six will get rights about more flexible hours. Children don't stop growing at six. What happens to parents with older children - will they get a mention?

    Are you aware of these Government proposals?

    Professor Len Shackleton:

    Yes, this is coming to us through European Union initiatives. We are going to be in a position where next year parents can ask for greater flexibility when they've got young children. It is difficult to draw a line somewhere. But I guess you would say that by the time children are six then they are at school for the bulk of the day and perhaps the need isn't quite as great as it is for very small children.


    Isn't there the same problem though that you mentioned earlier in terms of any kinds of flexibility? That it's fine where you've got a large organisation which can soak up the implications of that flexibility but when you're talking about a tiny organisation, if they're forced to do it then it can have a huge knock-on effect in terms of their business.

    Professor Len Shackleton:

    That is absolutely right and I'm actually rather critical of the way in which the legislation has been drafted in this area. It is essentially saying, people have the right to ask but of course where do you go from there is the obvious question. If the employer says, no sorry can't do it, then the likely thing is that a number of people will try to appeal through employee tribunals and we will establish presumably some kind of case law in this area. At the moment it's very vague what exactly you can ask for and in what circumstances.


    Michelle, UK: Stressed? The answer is sell up your one bedroom flat in London, move up North, buy a four bedroom detached house set in a quarter acre of land, work part-time, enjoy life - problem solved. Yes, I did it and the weather is even nice.

    I suppose the point that she is raising there is one of downshifting. Is there evidence that more people are saying - actually I can't be bothered with this rat-race, that I do want to sell up and exchange it for an easier life?

    Professor Len Shackleton:

    Well it's a very tempting prospect of course. You and I live in London and it is a very demanding kind of lifestyle - particularly when you have tube strikes as we've recently had. Yes, people are doing this. I think one of the things to bear in mind in all this type of discussion is that the people working the longest hours are relatively young people - they're in the 20s and their 30s.

    I think once people get beyond the stage of that part of their career, then a number of options become open, particularly when people have built equity in housing. If your house is now worth £450,000, for example, you can do pretty well up in the North with that kind of money. So I think that opportunity is there and is being taken advantage of by many people.


    Isn't that part of a broader picture in terms of a squeezing our working life into a narrower window than perhaps there has been in the past? We educate ourselves for longer - more of us go to university, perhaps do a second degree and then there's often retiring early at the age of 55 years old. So that window of work is narrower than it once was.

    Professor Len Shackleton:

    That is a very good point. A lot of this emphasis on how much we are working during our normal working lives doesn't recognise the fact that working life has shrunk. Indeed, we're by no means the most extreme in this case.

    I always talk about Germany in this context, which has the oldest students and the youngest pensioners in Europe and where effectively working life is about 30 years. In that kind of situation, of course we are building up problems with the demographic trends which we can perceive in Europe. But that's another discussion.


    Dawn Lawton, Folkestone, Kent: Who is responsible for looking at the wider picture of the potential benefits of a truly 24/7 lifestyle? Wouldn't there be less road congestion, less need for crèche facilities and working parents could accommodate their needs. How can we make it attractive to a business to put this in place bearing in mind their outlay of security and facilities required for their staff?

    Professor Len Shackleton:

    Well this writer I guess has the view that government or somebody knows best in this kind of situation. I tend to take the view that most often businesses and individuals know best. What we can do is we can encourage trends which seem sensible. We can, for example, think about different ways of running the tax system and so forth. But what we shouldn't do is to try to get a blueprint for how people ought to behave. It's extraordinarily difficult to do that. All the experience of the last 50 years of trying to plan these kinds of things just doesn't work. .


    Has there been a shift, do you think, with the Labour Government coming in and perhaps,some people have suggested, introducing more red tape in recent years?

    Professor Len Shackleton:

    Yes you could call it red tape and indeed many businesses would call it red tape. Looking on the positive side, I think new Labour has shown itself sensitive to a range of issues which in the past were perhaps neglected. I don't think they always get it right where the balance should lie but it is important to have these issues out in the open.

    With this work/life balance, for example. I think what the Government is doing at the moment is reasonably sensible. It is saying, here is an initiative which we think business ought to pursue. We have a Minister Alan Johnson, who is pursing this. But not laying down regulations about how it should be done, but simply drawing attention to it. The DTI website, for example, has on it all sorts of links to methods which employers have adopted to offer more flexible options to people. I think it's quite reasonable for the Government to do this. What I don't think is reasonable is to say, you will do it this way and you must not work more than a certain number of hours.


    Matthew, USA asks: Do you think America's puritanical work ethic is spreading across the globe as other nations strive to compete against our powerful economy? Does this mean longer hours for less pay, with less support from your company and drastically reduced vacation? Aren't the days of job security over? Expect more and more stress as time goes on, not less.

    Professor Len Shackleton:

    Well that sounds very worrying. But in fact you can point in the opposite direction. The type of jobs which people do are increasingly jobs which are not immediately physically dangerous or stressful. They're offering people an opportunity to work with their brain rather than their hands - they are more interesting jobs.

    The typical kind of job for a young graduate, for example, is going into something which is reasonably creative, with a reasonable degree of autonomy and a reasonable range of choices for a future career. We are extraordinarily lucky in this country. We have a high level of employment - there's lots of job opportunities. The thing I would say is that if people don't like the job they have got, there are plenty more around. Have a look, see what there is. There's no reason why people should chain themselves to jobs which don't satisfy them.

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