Today is Go Home On Time Day, a day on which employees up and down the land stick it to The Man by working their contracted hours. Shut down Microsoft Office and rebel, people! You have nothing to lose but your unsaved Excel spreadsheets! (You can redo them later, once the kids are in bed. Or maybe wait until after midnight, just to make sure you’re not breaking the secret Go Home On Time Day rules.)
In case you’re wondering why such an outrageous act of insurrection is being encouraged, it forms part of National Work-Life Balance Week, set up by the charity Working Families. Yes, this is where we are, folks. It’s down to a charity – a bloody good charity at that – to keep reminding employees that they’re still human beings with a right to interact with their own families. Since fewer than half of all parents leave work on time every day, it’s pretty clear we still need a reminder.
Despite the merits of the Work-Life Balance campaign, I do have one misgiving: the phrase itself always makes me uncomfortable. Like “body confidence” and “positive mental attitude”, “work-life balance” is one of those touchy-feely concepts which can end up being just another thing at which to fail. Don’t have a good “work-life balance” yet? Best add it to your never-ending to-do list, along with practising mindfulness, having some me-time and learning to be your own best friend. It can start to feel like all everyday experience is being taken from us and sold back piecemeal, via a Bisto gravy advert (this is our night, our family night!). The artificiality of the thing never ceases to grate. I don’t want a “work-life balance”; I just want a life!
Because it is of course an arbitrary distinction, work versus life. Employers would like us to think otherwise. Wouldn’t it be great if we could leave our lives at the door the moment we entered our workplaces? All human experience – hunger, sickness, fatigue, boredom – could then remain outside. After all, that forms a part of living, not working. Once you’re in worker mode, all human emotions can be simulated; it’s more professional that way. Smile on demand, make conversation when appropriate, but just don’t seem too alive. Life is messy; the quality is patchy and it rarely runs on time and to budget. There’s simply no place for it in The Productivity Triangle.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, there is also the gendered aspect to the whole “work-life” distinction. Work (paid employment outside the home) is seen as male, life (domestic labour) is seen as female. This has led to the assumption that a solution to both gender inequality and employee dissatisfaction is to get more women “working” and more men “living”. It shouldn’t be hard to see the problem with this. Much of what we call “life” – cooking, cleaning, caring for dependants – is in fact work (many’s the time I find myself skiving not by leaving the office early, but by staying late). Furthermore, it is work that women have carried on doing while also being “allowed” to do paid (“male”) work, albeit usually for meagre rewards. Some balance.
The concept of work-life balance is of course useful to politicians, distracting attention from the fact that the one thing that would enable all of us to achieve a better state of being would be a more equal distribution of wealth. In Smile or Die, her analysis of the ways in which “positive thinking” obscures the need for structural change, Barbara Ehrenreich points out that “the most routine obstacle to human happiness is poverty”:
To the extent that happiness surveys can be believed, they consistently show that the world’s happiest countries tend also to be among the richest. […] Some recent studies find furthermore that, within countries, richer people tend to be happier, with about 90 percent of Americans in households earning at least $250,000 a year reporting being “very happy,” compared with only 42 per cent of people in households earning less than $30,000.
And yet in a country in which the “happiness index” is supposed to matter, the poor are getting poorer, the rich are getting richer and we are pulled in two directions. We are under pressure both to act out “being human” (laugh! Smile! Make that gravy!) and to cut ourselves off from all the usual support networks (so what if you have to work two jobs and can’t afford to live anywhere near your friends and family? Accept it! Times are tough!).
We are on the back foot, horribly so. Even the Telegraph has run a piece complaining that “screw-everyone capitalism has become much more prevalent in the last 15 years” and that “our financial elite is now totally out of control”. That employees can request flexible or part-time working is undoubtedly a step forward, but the fact that if it is awarded, we then can’t afford to pay the rent is two steps back. Our expectations are tempered by a culture of shame. However much we know about the structural basis for inequality, we’re still encouraged to believe that knowing the language of choice will magically make choice available. I think this is especially true for women. If leaning in, stepping up to the plate, fighting fire with fire etc. were all they’re cracked up to be, the gender pay gap in the UK wouldn’t stand at 19.7 per cent. If being human makes us less appealing as employees, being human and female makes us doubly so.
And yet ultimately it doesn’t matter whether so-called “life” or “work” is the dominant force in your life, providing you are secure and content. The balance can change over time, depending on who is around you and what your priorities are. The point is not to achieve some neat 50/50 split, but to be treated like a person – a person with real needs and real responsibilities – at all times.
So, go home on time today. Or don’t, depending on how messy the house is and how much you’d rather potter about after closing time, avoiding your nearest and dearest. Just remember that there’s nothing shameful in expecting more from those with more power than you. And close down that spreadsheet.