How Work Life Balance Has Changed

The term work life balance was coined in the UK in the late 1970s but wasn’t well used in North America until the late 1980s. I don’t know about you, but I was surprised to learn it’s been around for over 40 years. Having grown up during this timeframe, I can safely say I never heard my parents use this term, even though they both worked full-time and were raising three kids.

For me, I began hearing about work life balance in the early 2000s. In many organizations, with a drive to make greater profits, came a higher workload with less staff to do the work.

And then came the Blackberry, and eventually smart phones. Now professionals were expected to be on call 24-hours. This technology, that was supposed to help make our lives simpler, actually meant that we could never truly leave the office. We were always reachable.

While I’m not a social psychologist, I believe the conversation about work life balance changed when smart phones were introduced. The original conversation from the 1980s likely focused on hours in the office, and the long overdue recognition that men and women BOTH had a role to play in raising their families.

With the introduction of smart phones, the conversation evolved. New technologies offered new ways to work. For some, it meant freedom from being tied to a desk, or having to return to the office to do paperwork when out in the field. It also meant looking at ways to leverage technologies to work smarter (ex telecommuting, virtual meetings, webinars).

It also meant connectivity. I’m sure in the 1980s it was much more difficult for workers from one organization to learn about perks and benefits offered at another organization. Plus, this was the era of people starting a job in their 20s and staying with the same company until they retired.

My father started working at age 18, never leaving that company until he retired 38 years later. With no other frame of reference, he took the work hours, benefits and job requirements at face value. It never occurred to him there was another way to operate or that he could ask for anything more than he was given.

That has all changed as workers have become more flexible — changing jobs an average of 12 times in their career.

Wow. That’s an outstanding number. Now considering the average cost to onboard a new employee is around $5,000 (and can range up to $100,000+ depending on the training required), you can see why employers are keen to keep employees as long as they can.

And this is why the conversation about work life balance has changed again. Work life balance is no longer strictly about what the employee wants, but also what the employer can offer to attract and retain employees.

Think about it. What we like most about our jobs goes beyond our paycheque. It often includes factors like our commute to work, parking, schedule flexibility, days off, supportive work environment and more.

I know I have taken jobs based on the fact there was a compressed work week (meaning you worked an additional 45 minutes per day but got every other Friday off). In a competitive situation, where I have a few possibilities, the pieces that support work life balance are what have swayed me to take one job over another. Not the paycheque as it is often pretty consistent.

The desire for more work life balance has also resulted in an increase in self employment. In the four decades since the term work life balance was coined, the self employment rate in Canada has risen from 12 to 15% — an increase of 1.7 million people.

One-third of self employed workers stated independence and freedom as the primary reasons for choosing to be self employed. More women than men indicated work life balance and flexible hours as their top motivators.

The number of people choosing self employment over traditional employment continues to increase, making it even harder for employers to keep the employees they’ve invested in and trained. And this is why embracing work life balance is no longer a nice to have but rather a necessity for organizations looking to attract and retain the best and brightest.

As we enter a new decade, the conversation about work life balance will only get louder. Tele commuting, job sharing, remote offices, virtual meetings, flexible schedules, compressed work weeks, fitness opportunities, on-site daycare and other amenities to support workers will become the norm instead of something that only ‘cool’ companies like Google and Amazon offer.

And for those of us who have chosen, embraced and are loving the self employment life, there is no turning back. I know for me, I have found the work life balance I was craving as a mother and a person with interests outside of the office.

I am able to set up a workweek schedule that works for me. When I travel, I get to choose (for the most part) where I go, who I work with, the days away and if I want to tack on extra time to explore the city.

Most importantly, I am in control of my work life balance instead of hoping someone else creates an environment where I flourish and am inspired.

If you are an employer, I encourage you to reflect on how you support work life balance for your employees. Do you have a list of ‘perks’ that you think are sufficient? Or have you taken the time to talk to your employees, find out what they want and/or need, and created a work life balance model that supports them?

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This article has also appeared as a blog on How to Communications.

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Changmaker + communications expert

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