What will Brexit mean for work and life balance in the UK?

Well at this point (like a lot of things) we can only imagine; but the EU has brought in legislation that has improved work-life balance for employees in Britain.

The working time directive (WTD) is probably the most well known and perhaps controversial of these. Introduced in 1998 the WTD has reduced the paid working week for employees in the UK to a maximum of 48 hours. There is a lot of flexibility around this, and it can be averaged out over 17 weeks, meaning some weeks can be much longer than others. Some jobs are exempt and there still remains an opt out clause in the UK that working people can chose to take if they want to work more hours. The WTD also legislates for the right to a day off each week, a right to a rest break if the working day is longer than six hours, and 5.6 weeks paid leave each year.

Now when you think that the whole amount of hours we have available to us in any 7 day week is 168 hours you can begin to see why 48 hours is more than enough for paid work. Think about it. If you work the full complement of your 48 hours, you will have 120 hours left for everything else. You sleep (or you should sleep) 7-8 hours per night; more if you are a young adult. Well, working on 8 hours (let’s be kind to ourselves) that’s 56 hours you are asleep. Together then, paid work and sleep equate to 104 hours, leaving 64 hours for everything else. Depending on your perspective, your first thought might be “Well that’s more that enough. In fact it’s loads…..”. But in reality is it? In essence it depends on what you do in your life outside of paid work and how much control you have over how you manage both that and your workload; this sense of control is a critical factor.

So what do we do in the rest of life? Well of course, there are the basics we all have to do to survive: eating, toileting and self-care; these are essential and need time to be done well, if we are to maintain a healthy lifestyle. If we are to be happy as well as healthy, we also need to have strong loving relationships and social friendships. To create these takes an investment in time and energy; moreover this use of time and energy needs to be sustained across the lifespan, so that these relationships are resilient, strong and reciprocally caring. How many of you reading this can honestly say your family, friendships or both have not suffered because of the hours of time and energy you have freely given, or conversely have been taken, by paid work? On top of the demands of paid employment, we also have unpaid work to contend with. The latter includes the things you have to do in life, like housework, home maintenance, food shopping and other aspects of everyday drudge.

Finally, but far from least, if we are to have personal meaning and a sense of fulfillment in life, we need a little time and energy left for those activities that are personally fulfilling; things we choose or want to do because they give use satisfaction, pleasure and joy. These personally chosen activities are frequently lost in the milieu of having to do paid work and meet the demands of everyday tasks we have to do at home (this is the unpaid work I mentioned earlier).

When you look at this complexity of life activity, it’s clear that 64 hours may not be enough to all these things well. Yet it is necessary to do them if we are to maintain our health and wellbeing.

Interestingly the UK rallied against the WDT when it was first introduced and did not want to implement it. Whilst we were unable to refuse, many people still work much longer than their maximum 48 hours, and are either coerced or feel they have to do so in order to get through their workload. Some of you might want to do this, and I’m not judging that; but we still have the longest working hours in the EU and remain less productive in our longer hours culture than our European colleagues.

In essence working longer does not mean working stronger or more productively; quite the contrary. Levels of work related stress remain excessively high in the UK, specifically in the public sector workforce. High workloads, lack of control, insecurity and limited support by management remain the causative factors.

Worse still, we now have an underclass of working people in Britain, whose human rights are being exploited, their wages driven down by the use of employment agencies and unscrupulous employers. The recent reports about Sport Direct are tantamount to this and this Radio 4 report is a shocking indictment of the market versus caring perspective. http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03xjyzn

So what will happen when we leave the EU in terms of work and life balance? With the instability of the market and the insecurity and fear that will create, the loss of unions fighting for workers rights, the lack of public support for mistreated workers and a limited, rather lack lustre approach to care and compassion for others, I am not so sure it’s going to be good.

For ideas and practical examples on how to live a more balanced lifestyle read: Clouston TJ (2015) Challenging stress burnout and rust-out: Finding balance in busy lives. London. Jessica Kingsley Publishers available here: https://goo.gl/BEupm4 and here: http://www.jkp.com/uk/catalogsearch/result/?q=Clouston

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