All work and no play makes little sense

More stress, less time at home, no job security - the workplace is in crisis. Roger Trapp reports
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The Independent Online
IT IS one thing for organisations to recognise that the "long hours culture" is a problem. But it is quite another to work out a way of dealing with it.

The National Work-Life Forum, which holds its first conference in Glasgow on Tuesday, is calling for "a unified approach to developing strategies for changing the way in which we work and live". But, just a week after the body's launch at the BT Centre in London, chairperson Joanna Foster is, apart from calling for lengthy periods of paid parental leave when children are born or adopted, keeping rather quiet about possible solutions.

Instead, she and her colleagues, who are - at the behest of the Government - bringing together business people, employers, community groups and individuals, to encourage discussion on what the forum identifies as the six key areas:

o The Future Is Not So Bright - so called because the growth in non-permanent work and general job insecurity makes it difficult for young adults to plan their future work and family lives;

o The Manager's Dilemma - describing how managers feel caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to balancing their work with their home lives;

o The Same the World Over - such concerns are not confined to Britain alone;

o Stress and Health - stress is an important cause of absenteeism and lost productivity;

o Surviving or Living - a reference to how many working people describe their lives.

Part of the answer lies in new technology. BT has long promoted the idea of working "smarter not harder". But, while laptop computers, e-mail, voice mail and the like have the capacity to make it possible for people - especially so-called knowledge workers - to work in places other than their offices, the reality is that such developments have enabled organisations to get even more work out of their employees.

Mobile telephones and pager s are often referred to as "electronic balls and chains", while a recent newspaper report cites the claim by a consultant on work-life issues that at least 30 per cent of her seminar audiences admit to checking their voice mail at 10pm in case a client needs them.

That point illustrates the scale of the problem confronting those of us - that is, everyone with any trace of sanity left - trying to do something about this thorny issue. Part of the problem is that everyone is afraid of making a stand. This is true at the individual level because even those highly regarded "talents" believe that, if they decline, there are others who would be prepared to do what is required, perhaps even for less money.

It is also true at the organisational level because the gurus and consultants between them have contrived to make the business environment so competitive that there is little place for the company that just wants to bumble along making a decent, if unspectacular living.

At least in perception it is a business world where you either kill or are killed. That is why clients and customers can make unreasonable demands, just like the employees afraid of losing their jobs, company managements feel that, even if they wanted to say no, they could not afford to because a rival would immediately step in.

One way in which people are responding to such pressures is by setting up on their own, often by selling their services to their former employers. The explosion in small firms of this type helps to explain, in particular, why the proportion of women in the workforce is rising while it remains as difficult as ever to find them in the higher echelons of management.

But, as Ms Foster is at pains to point out, the work-life balance issue has moved beyond being a concern just for women. Men, too, have started to realise that career success is not everything, and this could prove to be the biggest spur to change.

But, even so, the National Work-Life Forum may have to work overtime to come up with a coherent strategy for change by this time next year.

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