Is work-life balance becoming more important than pay?

With recent reports highlighting growing employee desire for balance, People Management explores whether downtime could be worth its weight in gold for businesses that can’t increase salaries

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As the cost of living causes many employees to ask for a monthly pay boost from their employer, and pay disputes in the private sector spark a wave of industrial action across the UK, new research has found work-life balance could trump a higher wage.

A recent report by Hays revealed that more than half (56 per cent) of employees are willing to accept a lower-paid job in exchange for a better work-life balance. It found that a third (33 per cent) of workers consider work-life balance to be the most “crucial consideration” when looking for a job.

But that’s not all. An earlier report from Aviva in September last year found that two fifths (41 per cent) of employees were attracted to their current role because of the work-life balance – which is five percentage points higher than those who cited salary. Interestingly, the Aviva research also found that, before the pandemic, employees valued pay over work-life balance.

So why is work-life balance more important than pay at a time when wages are not matching inflation?

Dr Melissa Carr, director of equity, diversity and inclusion at Henley Business School's World of Work Institute, says it is an aftershock of the pandemic, which left people feeling “fatigued”, wanting to “take stock and re-evaluate” their lives – but caveats that the figure of those wanting better work-life balance over pay would likely be higher if it wasn’t for the economic climate.

“I imagine it would be higher, but given a cost of living crisis and soaring inflation, for many this is simply unachievable,” says Carr, adding that organisations should view the data as a “call to action” to create cultures that enable and “value work-life balance and provide greater flexibility”.

Why would people choose balance over pay?

The UK has a particular problem with achieving and maintaining a sensible work-life balance, as evidenced in the CIPD’s UK Working Lives survey, which found that many UK employees felt their job made it “hard to switch off” in their downtime.

Indeed, this phenomenon is also a pandemic backlash. Yvonne Smyth, director at Hays, points out that because many people work from anywhere, some feel as though they are ‘always on’, blurring the lines between work and family life. "For professionals who haven’t paused for thought for a while, it’s wise to have a career check-in from time to time to avoid ending up in a job where you’re not progressing, or you are simply unhappy.”

But Gethin Nadin, psychologist and chief innovation officer at Benefex, says things have changed, as while “historically the workplace fought against our home lives”, the most successful employers are now “realising that there is a symbiotic relationship” between the home and our work.

“Something called the ‘gain spiral’ sees the workplace as being able to create and nurture better home lives, and consequently a better home life is creating more engaged, productive and innovative employees,” says Nadin.

Employers should also be wary of offering lower pay in exchange for work-life balance; they should consider what they can do to support employees to achieve this balance, rather than reducing pay in a competitive labour market.

Clare Kelliher, professor of work and organisation at Cranfield School of Management, says that significant numbers of employees claiming they would accept a lower salary in return for a better work-life balance “should send an important message to employers about the value employees place on their non-work lives”.

Why is work-life balance so important now?

It is acknowledged that the pandemic caused a shift in employee priorities, but the cost of living crisis seems to have only further entrenched what Covid originally put in place  – and that doesn’t necessarily involve a heavier pay packet.

Jane Sparrow, founder and director of The Culture Builders, says that while pay is “nice”, it won’t always be the difference between a balanced life and one that is sliding towards burnout: “A job that allows people to develop ways of working that are healthy in the long term is something that prevents people from sliding into stress, unhealthy practices and a crash-and-burn situation.”

She says higher salaries can add more complexity and stress to our lives as we extend ourselves further and build lifestyles that are dependent on a level of income. “We are in a tough situation as the cost of living is pushing people to look for more money, and that could be at the cost of their wellbeing,” she says. 

Similarly, David Collings, professor and chair of sustainable business at Trinity Business School, believes the shift is here to stay, as many employees who were lucky enough to forgo the commute to work in 2020 were able to take back precious hours for themselves.  “This shifted many people’s perspectives on what really mattered. Hence some employees truly see value in sacrificing pay for greater levels of work-life balance,” he says.

But there is no silver bullet to achieving this balance. While some may relish the thought of having more time to themselves, others may want to be on the go. As Ngozi Weller, director of Aurora Wellness, points out: “Everyone’s life is unique and subjective to them, and what is right for one person is not right for another person’s situation, so you have to ask.”

Can you do an audit of work-life balance to find out if yours needs more attention?

Asking staff for feedback can be a powerful tool. Data from Workhuman proved that comprehensive employee engagement schemes are beneficial for businesses, with a massive 68 per cent of organisations reporting an increase in employee retention.

But Gary Cookson, director of Epic HR and author of HR for Hybrid Working, says evaluating work-life balance at an organisational level is difficult, because while the concept is covered by several accreditations, there is no widely accepted method for measuring it or declaring that a company has ‘cracked it’ for their employees.

He adds that it would be more realistic to analyse healthy working practices and specific circumstances around any difficulties at a team or individual level, but that one-on-one interactions with individuals would be the best way to address any areas that require attention.

Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser for employment relations at the CIPD, says managers and HR can impact work-life balance, even by simply checking the calendar and making sure “people take their annual leave” and aren’t working long hours, for example. “Managers need to ensure that workloads and deadlines are realistic and manageable for people,” she says, adding that it is important employees also try to “maintain boundaries” so that everyone will have “better wellbeing and be more productive”.