Work-life balance is getting more out of kilter, says CIPD survey

Experts call on senior managers to embrace flexible working practices or risk job quality plummeting

An epidemic of long hours, stress and poor work-life balance is undermining attempts to improve job quality among UK employers, according to new research from the CIPD.

The CIPD’s UK Working Lives Survey – an annual assessment of job quality across seven different categories from pay and benefits to job design and health and wellbeing – found poor work-life balance was a particular problem for UK workers, with many admitting their job made it hard to switch off in their downtime and caused disruption to their family life. 

Three in five (60 per cent) said they worked longer hours than they wanted to, and 24 per cent reported working an additional 10 or more hours a week on top of their contracted hours. One in four (24 per cent) admitted it was difficult to relax outside the office because they were thinking about work, and a similar proportion (26 per cent) said their job affected their personal commitments. 

The research, which collected responses from 5,136 employees across the UK, also uncovered evidence of high levels of work intensity, which is linked to increased stress among UK employees. One in five (22 per cent) said they often or always felt exhausted at work, or were under excessive pressure (22 per cent).

Speaking at the opening day of the Festival of Work in London today, Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, said the research showed work could sometimes be all-encompassing, demanding too much of people’s personal time and taking too much out of them.

“It’s disappointing to see so many workers report they have a poor work-life balance and it is an issue which must be addressed by employers,” Cheese said. “They need to be offering all staff a wide range of flexible working arrangements and actively promoting their take-up.”

The CIPD called on employers to offer a range of flexible working practices to improve work-life balance and protect their health and wellbeing. They said such moves could help address the root causes of work-related stress and bring about a more engaged workforce. 

Cheese added that, as co-chair of the government’s Flexible Working Task Force, he was working with the government and other business groups to “bring flexible working to the masses and help reset work-life balance”. 

Professor Sir Cary Cooper, CIPD president, told People Management it was important for line managers to role-model better working practices, such as flexible working. He added too many senior managers clung to the attitude of “coming early and leaving late”, perpetuating a culture of working longer rather than smarter. 

“Senior managers need to change their attitude about being present in the workplace, and they need to question why they are pushing others to stay later, work while they’re exhausted and possibly make important business decisions while exhausted,” Cooper said. 

He added employers must challenge senior leaders to model flexible working patterns to get the most out of people.

“We all acknowledge that occasionally we may have to work long hours,” Cooper said. “But we need to act now to stop the culture of presenteeism, where we are constantly overworking even though our workforce is exhausted.”  

The survey revealed more than half (54 per cent) of UK employees worked flexibly in some way, with the most common arrangement being flexi-time (35 per cent) where they can choose their start and finish time. And 78 per cent of flexible workers said their working arrangements had a positive impact on their quality of life.

But the report found many were still missing out on such arrangements with two-thirds (68 per cent) of employees wanting to work flexibly in a way that is currently not offered by their employer. 

Louise Aston, health and wellbeing director at Business in the Community, endorsed the CIPD’s call for employers to offer better flexible working practices, but said it is “only one part of the solution” to addressing UK job quality. 

“More and more people are using their annual leave or time at home to work and alarmingly, according to our research, only one in four organisations are taking any steps to discourage this,” Aston said. 

“A seismic cultural shift is needed across the board because the trend towards people working longer and harder than ever before looks set to get worse. Long term, this causes burnout, is unsustainable and has a significant impact on recruitment and retention.”