How to get yourself a better work-life balance

Whether you're fed up with your commute, missing the kids or lacking quality time with your partner, Rob Griffin explores options to revolutionise your working life

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 commuters, 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, that 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.

The options

For those that like the idea of flexible working there are plenty of options: part-time; flexi-time; job sharing; annualised hours; compressed hours; staggered hours and homeworking. In addition there are variations on these themes, such as term-time working and school hours working. It all comes down to the relationship with the boss and how amenable they are to your demands.

Going part-time means simply working less hours, while flexi-time enables you to choose your hours, although there's usually a core period during which you are expected to work. Job sharing, meanwhile, sees you combining with someone else to do a job designed for one person. For example, each of you doing two-and-a- half days a week.

Annualised means your hours will be worked out over a year with the normal practice being a set number of shifts to which you add your own agreed hours. A compressed arrangement will see you working the same amount of hours but in a few days, while staggered involves having different starting and finishing times for employees in the same workplace.

Finally there is homeworking, which does away with the commute – and the expense of having an employee in the office – as their job is done from the comfort of their own house. The hours spent dedicated to company business – or amount of work needed to be finished – will be down to an agreement struck with the boss.

Your entitlement

The good news is that anyone can ask their employer for flexible working arrangements and the law also provides a statutory right to make this request if you meet certain criteria, such as having worked for the same firm for 26 continuous weeks.

If this is the case they can ask if, for example, they have parental responsibility for a child under 17-years-old (or a disabled child under 18 that receives Disability Living Allowance); or they act as a carer for a relative, or an adult that's unrelated but who lives at the same address. However, although the employer must seriously consider the application, they can decline it where there is a legitimate business ground. Sarah Jackson, at Working Families, suggests anyone wanting to change their hours puts themselves into the manager's shoes and come up with a viable solution.

"Don't just say you want to change hours as all you're doing then is giving your manager a problem," she says. "Try to understand what your job means to the organisation. You know your job better than anyone else, and so are best placed to see a way of doing it differently."

Work for yourself

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.

As well as potentially being the passport to a more lucrative and enjoyable way of life, 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 properly up and running.

Other considerations

For all these flexible options there are financial issues to consider. For example, if their new flexible working arrangement reduces the hours worked it will affect their income and probably their pension benefits, warns Geoff Penrice, an independent financial adviser with Honister Partners.

"People need to consider what impact the new working arrangement will have on their finances in the short and the long term," he says. "I would recommend that people do a budgeting exercise to see the true impact of any changes because it might change their ability to save for school fees, university costs or deposits for a house move."

Over the longer-term the main issue will be their pension. "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.

Even if the finances are negatively affected, it is still important to balance this against the positive reasons for wanting a more flexible working arrangement, 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. For Jackie Houlihan these issues focus on structuring her day.

"It can be difficult to totally switch off and also hard in the afternoon when the kids are tearing around or I'm making dinner, but the positives are that I call a lot of my candidates in the evening rather than interrupting them when they're at work," she says.

"It's also good to keep family life separate but this isn't always possible. When the BlackBerry pings at 4pm on a Sunday afternoon and it takes all the willpower in the world not to go and check it in case it's something interesting!"

'The 30-second commute is blissful'

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

The 50-year-old, right, 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.

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