Rob Griffin: How to get a better work-life balance

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The Independent Online

Jackie Houlihan has managed to strike a good work-life balance. As well as being a successful self-employed recruitment consultant, the married 33-year-old also manages to juggle the demands of running a household and looking after her two young sons.

"I'm really pleased I made this move as it's worked out really well," she says. "It took me a long time to pluck up the courage to become self-employed and give up the security of knowing what you'll take home each month, but it has come with a lot of benefits."

These positives include the freedom to plan the working day, not having to join the early morning commute, getting to spend more time with her children – Olly, six, and two-year-old Thomas – and earning money to help bolster the family finances.

"Being a parent is the biggest guilt trip you can have when your children are ill," says Jackie, from Bexhill, East Sussex. "If you take time off work you feel guilty for not being there, and if someone else looks after them then you feel guilty about not spending time with them!"

Jackie had spent six years working for a string of high-street recruitment consultants before her children were born, but found it tough balancing her career and family life when she returned to her role on a part-time basis. "Recruitment is a very difficult job to do three days a week because things are happening all the time," she explains. "If you're not there every day you run the risk of missing out on something or getting beaten to the punch by a rival consultant as it's a very competitive industry."

After switching to working part-time in estate agency, Jackie was encouraged to make the move back into recruitment thanks to the encouragement of her husband, Seamus, and an offer from Capital Strategy Associates, the national recruitment company. "I joined them as an associate, which means I get to work for myself but have the backing of a recognised national brand," she explains. "I pay a monthly fee that gives me benefits such as access to job boards and CV searching, but I'm also free to generate my own leads."

It has also added another dimension to her day. "I admire people that stay at home all day with the children, but it would drive me mad," she says. "I've always been someone that wants to work and have a balance between spending time with the children and a career and adult conversations."

With her current arrangement she can also work as much – or as little – as she likes. "I can really focus on work when Thomas is at nursery, but can also make calls in the evening," she explains. "It also means I can work a bit less when the children are off school."

Finding ways of striking a better work-life balance is increasing in popularity and there are all sorts of motivating factors, according to Tracey Smith, founder of InterNational Downshifting Week (www.downshiftingweek.com), an awareness campaign now in its seventh year that is designed to help people improve their work-life balance.

"Many cite simple dissatisfaction with consumerism, the high-spend culture and associated environmental worries," she explains. "Others have concerns over lack of quality time with spouses and children, as well as health problems resulting from exhausting commutes and commitments." It's a trend acknowledged by the working families organisation (www.workingfamilies.org.uk) which ran National Work-Life week, which drew to a close yesterday. According to Sarah Jackson, the chief executive, the idea was to get better working practices into everyone's DNA.

"You are a much better family member if work is treating you well and you work much better for your employer if you're not worried about your home," she says. "Work currently takes priority in most people's lives even though everyone says their kids are the most important to them."

This is the same regardless of whether people are in high-flying careers or working shift patterns for a pretty low wage. "Work rules but it's better for work if families rule," she adds.

Simon West, an internet consultant and website developer (www.swandev.co.uk), embraced a flexible working life a year ago after becoming fed up with leaving home at the crack of dawn and barely getting any quality time with his three daughters.

The 50-year-old, who now lives in Drimpton, Dorset, spent four years doing a gruelling commute from his home in Taunton to an office in Exeter where he spent long hours working on a global computer network. "I switched to a job which was just a 30-minute walk from my home with a boss who understood that work-life balance was very important," he says. "The 40 per cent cut in salary was significant, but it was still better to work eight-and-a-half hours a day rather than 11 or 12."

Recently Simon has gone a step further and now does most of his work from home. "The 30-second commute is blissfully welcome and the ease with which technology can help solve the problems of a non-office-based workstyle makes such an incredible difference to my whole sense of well-being that I know I will never again take up the daily grind of a full-on commuting lifestyle," he says.

Of course, the ultimate flexibility is being your own boss. On the face of it you can set your own hours, decide how much to pay yourself and give yourself bonus days off when the sun is shining – but it's certainly not stress-free. Starting your own business can be one of the riskiest and stressful moves you can ever make – and is likely to require even more hours being put in until it's up and running.

If a new flexible working arrangement reduces the hours worked, it may affect pension benefits, warns Geoff Penrice, an independent financial adviser with Honister Partners. "I would recommend that people do a budgeting exercise to see the true impact, because it might change their ability to save for school fees, university costs or deposits for a house move.

"It is important that people take into account what reduced hours might mean for their pension benefits. It might mean that working less now will result in having to work later in life."

However, even if the finances are negatively affected, it is still important to balance this against positive reasons, such as getting to spend more quality time with your children and improving your quality of life.

There are, of course, other pros and cons of striking the perfect work-life balance. Jackie Houlihan admits it can be difficult to switch off. "When the BlackBerry pings at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon, it takes all the willpower in the world not to go and check it in case it's something interesting!"

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