Member profile: Striking the right work life balance

May 2016

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How do we get satisfaction from our work, care for family, be involved with the community, pursue our interests and keep everything in check? It’s the question UniSuper members Dr Natalie Skinner and Professor Barbara Pocock explore in their study, The Australian Work and Life Index.

We recently spoke to Dr Natalie Skinner about this complex issue.

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The topic of work life balance has been around for decades, so why does it keep making headlines?

“I think that the continued presence of work-life balance discussion and debates in the media show that we haven’t yet found effective solutions to the challenge of integrating paid work with other important life domains. Our workplace cultures, practices and expectations are still rooted in a past tradition where one person (usually a man) was the primary breadwinner, and another person (usually a woman) was responsible for care and domestic work. 

While the composition of our workforce has changed dramatically over time, many of our workplace cultures, systems and practices still expect that an individual is willing and able to prioritise work over all other life domains—family, community, leisure and personal care. This means many individuals and households still struggle to manage work and non-work activities and commitments.”

How does the Australian approach work-life balance differ to other cultures? 

“Australia is a country with a diverse population and workforce so I’m not sure it’s possible to characterise a universal ‘Australian approach’. Like most countries, Australia’s approach is mixed, and people’s experience differs depending on their employment sector, industry and occupation.

Taking that into account, I think it’s fair to say that Australia would benefit by looking to how Nordic countries approach work and care. For example, providing universal government-funded and high quality child care would significantly enhance the capacity of parents to engage in paid work and ensure good quality care for their children.

Another significant advancement would be to normalise flexible work arrangements, for example developing workplace cultures where part-time work is not seen as a special or unusual arrangement that precludes career progression, but rather a normal and acceptable arrangement for all workers, regardless of their personal circumstances.”

Flexible working arrangements are considered integral to achieving positive work life outcomes, but are there any downsides?

“Sure, there are no perfect solutions to this complex issue. Flexible working arrangements are an important and valuable support for many workers to combine paid work with non-work activities and commitments such as caring for a child or elder.

On the other hand, it’s common for flexible workers to experience work intensification; completing tasks in a reduced timeframe or doing work in their personal time (e.g. on a non-work day, weekend or leave day).

Unfortunately, in many workplaces a person’s decision to work flexibly is taken as an indication of a lack of career commitment so flexible working can often reduce opportunities for career advancement. This is particularly true for people working in industries with traditional masculine work cultures.

There’s also some evidence that men may experience particularly strong negative responses at work if they request a flexible work arrangement to provide care for their children. While considered acceptable or even expected for women to change their work arrangements to meet their childcare responsibilities, in Australia it is much more unusual and in many workplaces less acceptable for men to do the same.”

What are the changes people, government and organisations can make that could lead to an improvement in work/life balance?

“This is a big question that would require a very long answer about the specific policies, practices and cultural changes that are needed. I think that an underlying principle guiding all of these changes is that work-life balance should be considered to be a valid and valuable aspect of health and decent quality of life for all people—not simply as a special consideration for working mothers—which remains a common view in Australia. 

Multifaceted policy approaches to set the foundation for change include:

  • more inclusive employment regulation
  • better quality part-time work, and
  • a greater policy focus on men’s uptake of flexible work 

These changes, alongside cultural shifts around gender norms (that often restrict people to traditional roles) are needed to alleviate some of the burdens and causes of work-life conflict.”

What factors have a greater impact on whether or not we can achieve positive work-life outcomes? 

“Work-life balance is part of a bigger challenge in our society regarding how we can ensure all people, regardless of their circumstances, can have a good quality of life. This is a complex challenge, and many factors are involved. Improvements in this area are likely to require both bottom-up and top-down approaches; changes to policies and legal entitlements (e.g. universal paid parental leave) and transformations to workplace and society cultures and expectations.” 

The Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI) is a national survey of work–life outcomes of working Australians undertaken by the Centre for Work + Life. AWALI was launched in 2007 and repeated annually until 2010. Since then, the survey has been produced biennially, with the last survey conducted in 2014. Read more about Dr Skinner’s work.