Work, sweet work

It's calm, orderly, even quiet. Parents are starting to admit they prefer the office, where they are appreciated, to the chaos of family life
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Surely it goes without saying. If you are asked whether you would prefer to spend more time at work or at home with your family, you say you would rather be at home.

But put the question in a different way. Would you like to spend more time in an ordered place, where you are respected and you feel part of a team? Or would you choose to be where it's noisy and chaotic, decisions are taken on the spur of the moment, and the hubbub threatens to overwhelm you?

That seems to go without saying too, even after you work out that the noisy chaos is home, and the rewarding structured life is to be found at work. Now Arlie Russell Hochschild, professor of sociology at the University of California, believes she has demonstrated that many workers prefer to spend long hours in the office rather than be at home with their children. "I go to work to relax," one interviewee told her. It's known as the live-to-work culture, and it is not always a good thing.

Professor Hochschild's controversial new book has surprised America. Titled The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, it is the story of her three-year study of a large American corporation, which she calls Amerco to preserve its anonymity. Amerco is considered a model employer, with a wide range of family-friendly policies. Except hardly any of the hard-pressed, overworked staff take them up. The company creche is much in demand, unlike policies that allow parents more free time to spend with the family. They languish.

Work is no longer what it was when the hooter signalled a rush of men out of the factory gate, but in the shift away from hard manual work in manufacturing done mostly by men, to men and women in white-collar, service-industry jobs in air-conditioned offices, attitudes to work have shifted no less dramatically, no matter where people work. Professor Hochschild interviewed employees from senior managers to factory workers on the shop floor, and discovered that their responses were the same - they liked working.

SPEAKING from her San Francisco home, she said: "In itself, enjoying work isn't bad. But when there is a weak family system and people are spending more and more hours in the office, something less healthy takes hold." She found that people often felt more appreciated at work than at home. "People were telling me that they felt better at work, that the world at work was clearer, while home was more ambiguous. They are more unsure at home."

One man said to her that when he was doing good work in the office his superviser patted him on the back. When was doing a good job at home, his kids were probably giving him hell. "Not that these people didn't love their children, says Professor Hochschild. "They would die for them."

Die for them, yes, but play with them, no. "Workers drive themselves to work long hours," she says. "It isn't because the boss is keeping them there. It is rather like a workaholic cult, this atmosphere of industry that has crept over these intelligent people."

This is the live-to-work culture. "Twenty years ago it didn't exist for most people, and it still doesn't for many today," says Professor Hochschild. "But I would argue that it is a growing trend. It used to be more relevant for men; 20 years ago men would be either in the office or at the pub, and they just didn't feel very good at what they did at home. Now that can now be true for women too." She adds that this is not just a US phenomenon: "Don't you have companies with gyms at work, companies where the workers have breakfast, lunch and dinner, companies where groups of workers get together to assess performance?" She identifies these as the ways in which companies start taking over from family life."

Hilary Bryant knows what she means. Her home in south London could be any yuppie maisonette, stripped wood flooring and striped furniture scattered with toys belonging to two-year-old Alex and Marianne, six months. "My husband Mike is a manager with one of Britain's largest companies, formerly a public utility," she says, and it is certainly like a second family to him. "We're both up at six. For me, it's because the kids are up; for him, it's because he is rushing to work. He eats lunch there, because we thought it it would be easier for me not to have to cook at night. What it means is he stays for a drink with his colleagues, or goes to the company leisure centre. Mike plays in the company football team on Saturdays, and spends more time on residential conferences than he does on family holidays. He sees far more of his work friends than he does of me or the kids."

Hilary, who worked in personnel before her children were born, looks forward to rejoining a work-family of her own. "Mike likes work and is very good at it, and I used to be the same. I already know there's more to life than screaming and pooping. I shall be going back full-time when Marianne is old enough. I miss the comradeship, and also my own work persona - neat, tidy, efficient. The way I am when I'm looking after the children doesn't feel like me. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in leggings and t-shirts. "

The concept of work as a refuge is familiar to plenty of working parents. "Work is far more civilised than home," says Louise Jackson, a lawyer in her 30s, mother of three children under 12. "Home is very gloves-off, the kids will yell and scream and act like savages. At work people will be polite and civil. Being with other adults is very refreshing."

Hilary Bryant's route back to work could be smoothed by sweeteners now offered by employers to keep harassed employees' lives in some semblance of order. For example, the Luncheon Vouchers system has been extended to include child-care vouchers and a scheme called Familylife Solutions, where, for a fee, employers can provide the helpline services of counsellors, health professionals and legal helpers, who will help sort out family crises while the employee works on.

Professor Hochschild's book lists the American example where "outsourcing" includes paying for cleaning or gardening, child care, and more exotic services like having someone arrange your photo album, buying mail-order flash-frozen dinners, or "Grandma Please!" - which enables children to dial an adult who will talk with them, sing to them, or help them with homework.

But what about the extra time that becomes available due to such schemes? Professor Hochschild has the answer: "If work is the world with the most draw, the time will go to work. There doesn't seem to be an equal and opposite pull from the home."

Work/Family Directions aims to help companies implement family-friendly policies. Founded in the US in 1985, it was launched in Britain in July. Liz Bargh, W/FD chief executive, says: "Time management is a global issue, though our methods are local - we haven't just dumped an American product in the UK market." Around 25 per cent of British companies offer family- friendly schemes such as part-time hours or job-shares, but, she says, there is a large gap between the policies on offer and the take-up rate. She believes that this is because employees want to be seen as "hard-working" and hence stick to their desks like glue. "There is an informal culture within organisations that highly values `face time' - long hours that employees are seen to spend in the office, whether they are productive hours or not. Until we can break that, we won't see a huge change in the way people work."

THE campaigning charity Parents at Work last year found it necessary to organise a national Go Home On Time Day to underline the way that parents spend too much time in the office. "We have found that many full-time working mothers are putting in very long hours - often a regular 50-hour week," says Sue Monk, chief executive. "Firms are recognising the importance of helping employees balance work and family life, but the problem is that policies aren't always implemented down the line - line managers need to be won over to the idea that family-friendly policies can actually help them."

Eventually, striking a balance is up to the individual, and some parents manage it - though at a personal cost. For example, Janetta Hamilton- Brown, aged 29, puts a 50-hour week into her own company, a successful dating agency called Only Lunch, but insists she is able to fit in her two children, Daniel, six, and Oliver, four. "I'm a single mother, so I employ a nanny, Susan, because I want to have a responsible adult who's always there to take the children to school and pick them up. I get to work for nine and don't stop till 5.30, then I have to force myself to leave on the dot. I'm home at 6.30 to see the children before bed. Then once they are asleep, my business partner comes over and we work at home several evenings a week."

She would give up neither children nor company. "My marriage failed because of pressures of work - my husband worked every hour god sends and found it very hard to split his time. But I'm very proud of Only Lunch - it has given me self-respect and the feeling that I'm achieving a good standard of living for my children. After a long weekend I sometimes think `Thank god it's Monday' - with children you can't get 10 minutes of quiet to yourself. But my love for my job isn't to the exclusion of my family."

And what about time for herself? "There isn't any," she says with a laugh. "I'm way down the priority list." In the end, something always has to give.

Comments