In theory... Work-life balance

Emma De Vita's weekly look at management-speak

In management speak, 'work-life balance' is a phrase that is bandied about like nobody's business. Every organisation that's worried about its 'grooviness' factor bangs on about the work-life balance of its employees. Actually, the term has been around since the mid-90s, when it was a pretty radical idea.

It's no coincidence that the theory took hold just as Tony Blair took office. Suddenly, politics and business gained a more human face. After John Major's pallid complexion and wilted demeanour came a young and spritely new Prime Minister. The world of work rejuvenated itself. Whereas once all that mattered were numbers, output and the bottom line, in the new climate people were recognised as an important part of the business equation.

But what is work-life balance? Initially, the term was used to refer to the everyday struggle people faced between the contradictory spheres of home life and time in the office. All of a sudden, people were allowed - in fact, positively encouraged - to have a life outside work. It became a hot topic, debated in boardrooms and around water coolers.

Things have moved on, however. Ask most people what their work-life balance is like today, and they'll usually grunt that it's non-existent or just laugh in your face.

Though most organisations like to boast that they help their employees achieve the lifestyle they desire, for the majority of us that's just pie in the sky. How often are you allowed to work from home? Can you leave the office after lunch on Friday, just because you fancy it?

At one point, there was even serious discussion that workers should be allowed to have 'duvet days', when they didn't have to come into work if they didn't want to. Now it's enough just to be able to leave by 7pm and take all your annual holiday leave. You're better off bringing your duvet to work.

Work-life balance? We've still got a long way to go ...

- Emma De Vita is a senior section editor on Management Today.

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