Sacrifice, pain and loss - just another day at the office

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The Independent Online
MODERN workers are more likely to associate sacrifice than satisfaction with their jobs. Areport, published tomorrow, of the largest study to date to investigate the balance between work and home life has found that giving things up for the sake of the job is the norm rather than the exception. Employees are laying down not only their leisure time but also their relationships and children on the altar of long working hours.

The study was carried out jointly by Work/Family Directions (WFD) - a company that specialises in helping employers balance their workforce's office and home lives - and Management Today magazine. It found that the employees hardest hit by "sacrifice mentality", and also most distressed by it, are those who would seem the most career-orientated: high- flyers, aged under 35, working their way up through large organisations.

It is not only women who regret giving time to the boss that could otherwise be spent with their children. "Traditionally, this has been seen as a woman's issue," said Liz Bargh, WFD's chief executive. "Take the reports last week about Angela Browning, the MP who has given up her job to spend time with her autistic son; there is still a distinct flavour of 'As a woman, that's what she would do.' But the aspirations of men and women are coming much closer together in this respect. In fact an earlier poll showed that marginally more men would trade pay for time."

Ms Bargh thinks that the pressure on today's workers to sacrifice so much of their personal lives is, in part, a hangover from the recession. "There is still a lack of a sense of job security. The belief in a job for life has disappeared. People with financial commitments and families are still afraid that if they don't work long hours and put in the effort they will lose their jobs."

But, at the same time, nobody is forcing people to stay in jobs that eat up their whole lives; after all, making a sacrifice involves a voluntary element. "People let their jobs become a way of life," said Ms Bargh. "It is almost a herd instinct. There is an attitude that is very ... I won't say macho, because women do it too, but it is the attitude that says: 'We're the winners and the leaders, we worked 24 hours yesterday and we're working 24 hours tomorrow but we're ahead!' It is, I think, very unhealthy."

Of course, we all know already how hard we're working. Previous surveys have shown that British professionals work harder than any others in Europe. But, according to WFD's philosophy, sacrifice syndrome is completely unnecessary, because the flexibility that would relieve it would benefit both workers and bosses. "A workplace that supports its employees achieves increased productivity, morale and employee retention, and decreased absenteeism and lost time," Ms Bargh said. "The key issue over the next five years in business will be flexibility."

Some companies are leading the way. NatWest last week announced its intention to implement a "flexi-year": staff will be expected to put in 1,826 hours but will be allowed to choose when they work.

Other large companies are operating similar schemes for at least some of their staff. Some NHS trusts also allow individuals to select the hours they work. Price Waterhouse won an award for its flexible benefits package, which allowed individual employees to select their own most appropriate arrangement.

Other groups agree with the findings of the WFD/Management Today survey. Sarah Jackson, chief executive of the campaigning group Parents at Work, says that the research bears out its own findings: that children in particular are often pushed aside to make room for work.

"You cannot underestimate the prevalent feeling that children's well- being is very much tied up in the family's financial well-being," she said. And most employees find it hard to refuse requests from the boss. "People go off to things like breakfast meetings thinking: 'Well, the children will still be there tomorrow', but it's simply not true. Parents so often regretfully say when it's too late that they didn't realise how short childhood is."

Nevertheless, she believes that there is "a very gradual and subtle cultural change" under way. "Leading-edge employees are starting to realise that better contracts between themselves and their employees do lead to better contracts with the rest of the world," she said.

Another new survey, published last week by the Daycare Trust as part of its national childcare campaign, found that nearly 90 per cent of companies believe that family-friendly employment policies will become more important over the next five years, although it also showed that practical help for parents is all too rarely provided.

However, Andrew Ferguson of the Breakthrough Network suggests a more radical approach to a life sacrificed to work. He helps people to leave the rat race and start up on their own.

"An awful lot of people are faced with unrealistic expectations because they have made unwise commitments early on - too big a mortgage, for instance," he said. "Only 5 per cent of the workforce earns more than pounds 36,000, but an awful lot more are behaving as if they earn twice as much - they simply haven't done the sums."

He added that throughout the Eighties he had warned that people were "mortgaging the rest of the century to pay for all the things they felt they should have. The Nineties is pay-back time".

His clients range from solicitors to carpenters, and in the 10 years since he set up the Breakthrough Network he has advised 8,000. "You have got to manage your own career and take the initiative yourself," he said. "If you are sacrificing your life for work, remember that your employers have got their own interests at heart, and only take your interests to heart to the extent that it helps them. The old concept of loyalty going both ways has disappeared."

Top 10 moans

1 Missing children growing

2 Putting work before home and family

3 Moving for employer

4 Missing leisure/hobby time

5 Being away from home for short periods

6 Divorce or strain on a relationship

7 Being away from home for long periods

8 Time spent on work-related education

9 Not having children

10 Being unable to form relationships

Top 10 wishes

1 Being able to work shorter hours

2 A change in the company culture

3 Being able to work flexible hours

4 Reducing or avoiding commuting

5 Being able to work from home

6 Changing jobs or relocating

7 Having more staff

8 Earning more

9 Retiring

10 Having lower levels of stress