Jayne Dowle: Families pay price when work never ends

What can be done to tackle work-life balance?
What can be done to tackle work-life balance?
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FOR most families in Yorkshire, it’s half-term week. For the children at least. Unless you have unfettered access to the office holiday rota well in advance, it’s likely that you’ll be at your desk while your offspring enjoy the break.

And these days it’s a myth that teachers get to take school holidays off. On Monday morning, I received a phone call from a teacher at my daughter’s school reminding me that I only had a week to submit her application for secondary school. Clearly, staff have been drafted in over the half-term break to get on with the burden of administration.

I bet they love that – especially if they took the job because they have children themselves and assumed that their holidays would coincide. Now they will be chasing around for childcare and juggling responsibilities and generally end up stressed and exhausted.

And who do you think suffers when work intrudes on family life? Not just the parents, under the cosh to clock in. It’s the children, who look forward to spending time with those adults they barely see from Monday to Friday, or even at the weekends.

What kind of example are we setting to our sons and daughters when, quite simply, we can’t spare 10 minutes to give them? Even simple things, like hunting for conkers or baking a cake together, are relegated. This can cause huge anxiety for both parents and children, and lead to all kinds of issues which impede a happy and supportive family life.

That’s why I’m not surprised at a major new report from counselling service Relate. It finds that one in three working people complain that they are put under pressure from managers to put their job before their family. You might argue that it was ever thus; if you choose to go out to work, you have to be prepared to make sacrifices.

However, this fails to take into account the fact modern employees are expected to be on call 24 hours a day. Emails, phone calls, text and Twitter messages increasingly interrupt private life and cause unbearable anxiety.

Relate believes that all this means 
that relationships and family life are suffering, and millions of British workers are at risk of becoming ill through the pressure. When it all gets too much, they might even quit their jobs, leading to an endless cycle of money worries and further stress.

It’s not a situation to be proud of, is it? However, it’s one I am all too familiar with. I can remember when I was teaching at a university part-time. As well as my allocated teaching hours, I was spending most of Sunday preparing work for class. As my workload became heavier and heavier, I was finding it difficult to stay on top of answering countless emails from students and colleagues. When I asked a department head for advice, he told me it was perfectly acceptable to spend a couple of hours every evening on my laptop, dealing with such matters.

This, of course, would be unpaid. With a long commute home of an hour, and two young children to bring up, I simply couldn’t find the time to do it all. And, to be honest, I felt it was unfair and unwarranted to expect me to do it for free. The pressure I was placed under was one of the factors which led to my resignation. I do wonder if without the constant demands on my time at home, I would still be happily in post.

Perhaps our employers need to look to France. Say what you like about our cousins over the Channel, but you have to admit that they get some things right. Take their new “right to disconnect” law for example. This means that in a company of 50 employees or more, it is illegal to email a colleague after typical working hours.

This legislation is part of a raft of amendments which are attempting to force companies to establish policies limiting the intrusion of work into employees’ private lives. Although there are no actual penalties for employers who violate the law, companies and organisations are under pressure to establish “charters of good conduct” which specify the times when staff are free from being digitally tethered to 
their workplaces.

I know. It comes to something when such things have to be written in stone. Yet this law is definitely a step in the right direction, and I’d like to ask our MPs, who enjoy generous time off Westminster themselves, to look closely at what’s happening in France. If want a productive nation, with happier, healthier families, we can no longer afford to allow the work-life balance to tip one way only.