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Why HR should forget work/life balance

21st Jun 2022
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What really makes for an appealing and workable Employee Value Proposition (EVP) in the post-pandemic age?

In the wake of the pandemic experience, the argument has been that people want a better work/life balance — we’d learnt about the importance of having more time for ourselves, to be with friends and family, as the bedrock of our wellbeing. We’d also found that rather than a temporary, emergency measure, working from home could be just as productive.

The new EVP is being built around flexibility. Employees don’t have to be in the office, we can all work together with digital connectivity, reduce our travel footprint and have more elbow room to look after ourselves. As one signal of the new trend in thinking, this month saw the start of the world’s biggest trial of four day working on full pay, involving 70 UK businesses for a six month period until the end of the year. In other words, HR are backing the move to focus on health and wellbeing over traditional rewards around salary (particularly in a challenging period of inflation and cost pressures).

The problem HR is facing is that the shift to hybrid working and greater work/life balance isn’t proving to be doing people any good. ONS statistics suggest that total weekly hours worked increased by 14.8 million hours in January to March 2022, compared with the previous quarter. The average number of hours worked by full-time employees is up to 36.6 hours compared with 34.2 in 2021. Homeworking has tended to encourage longer hours working and overworking. One survey by Hays among professionals found more than half were working more hours at home (a quarter were putting in an extra 10 hours every week).

The reality is that home working and hybrid hasn’t led to an idyll of work/life balance. Evidence from surveys on wellbeing point to ongoing high levels of stress and cases of burnout. Research carried out for this year’s Stress Awareness Month suggested that 62% of British employees had experienced burnout (a state of physical and emotional exhaustion) in the past year. A quarter believed they had been burnt out ‘consistently’ over that period.

Digital connectivity means work is a constant and powerful presence within homes. And flexibility of schedules can often just mean pressures being more concentrated, tipped over into shorter periods of activity. It’s important to remember that an essential part of the four day week trial is that employees commit to delivering 100% of their usual productivity (and there’s an ambition among participating businesses that productivity will increase).

More flexibility and shouting about the importance of looking after wellbeing isn’t necessarily leading to a stronger EVP and more feelings of loyalty. Because what’s missing is an essential sense of psychological safety. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in the office or able to work at home or not, wherever they are, people want to feel they can trust their employer, that they can be themselves and that there is a basis of stability.

A widespread culture of psychological safety leads to better collaboration, increased trust, innovation and wellbeing. At the heart of the challenge is the need for good conversations at all levels of an organisation. HR needs to be taking a lead on creating opportunities for more conversations as part of routines, digitally and face-to-face, and not allowing staff to become complacent and fall into disconnected routines — something that is happening more and more now the novelty of remote working has gone. Managers in particular need to have higher levels of conversation skills (listening skills, self-awareness, empathy are needed to a greater degree when dealing with people remotely).

Levels of psychological safety among staff should be measured at regular intervals, alongside making psychological safety a clear priority and ring fencing time for team members to work on new ideas: creating small teams who are each willing to work on developing specific projects and giving them SMART actions (Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant, Timely). For example, that might be introducing a ‘buddy’ system to talk about wellbeing and to encourage feelings of inclusivity; open acknowledgment that everyone makes mistakes and that it’s important to accept and learn from those mistakes; a shared calendar so staff can see at-a-glance who is going to be in the office and they can spend more informal time together — keeping up a strong feeling of community. After all, the main feature of an EVP should still be that workplaces are all about people coming together around a shared sense of purpose and mutual benefits.

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