I recently took part in an event on work life balance or whatever is the current term for not working all the time and managing to squeeze in some time for your kids. It was a little bit depressing. Woman after woman recounted doing extremely long hours. One lawyer with two young children was doing 8am to 8pm most days. Another with no kids said her marriage had fallen apart because her husband never saw her. Another had three young kids and worked a compressed week, but was regularly working on her day off with the three kids around and getting very stressed. Yet another complained of having to sit at her desk doing nothing because it was not done to go home “early”. She was listening to the other women and thinking about having children at some point soon, but found the whole discussion “scary”. Another mum of two had gone back to working full time because she could see that working part time meant she got looked down on and ended up doing more or less the same amount of work for less pay.
The problem, most of them agreed, was too much work and managers who were “50-year-old men” with wives at home who were able to work all hours. They agreed that probably many of those men didn’t want to be doing the hours either – they’re my generation and we definitely wanted to do things differently from our parent – but it seemed everyone was locked into a system which individuals in it policed by way of barbed comments about leaving early and so forth. So why was everyone stuck in this ridiculous trap? Guilt was one reason. Women felt guilty if they left on time, that they would let the team down, that work would not get done, that their colleagues would think they were “slackers”. Several had got comments to that effect. They felt guilty too when their kids asked if they could maybe not attend so many meetings. Another factor was that they loved their jobs and didn’t want to lose them. They just wanted them to be less full on so they could have some time with their families. Not part time, but not all the time.
They agreed that working less they might be more efficient and productive and certainly that they would be less prone to exhaustion since it seems a given these days that some employers are just trying to get too much out of too few people.
The problem was that if the culture was set by the managers and was one of working all hours how could it be changed? One woman had tried to set boundaries. She said people even took it on board when she said she was leaving on time, but still every single day they came up and asked her to do some work beyond her hours so she had to keep telling them that it would have to wait till the morning. It was tiring having to keep those boundaries in the face of such pressure.
Not all the women worked for the same employer, but they were all in the same sector and one employer stood out more than others. The thing that struck me most was that culture is created by people not by policies [however good these are], but that individuals face an uphill battle if they try and take it on alone. Only collectively – and it needs to be men and women – and through co-opting senior managers could there be some change. I know that there are many better employers around and that some sectors still face enormous challenges to adapt to the fact that both parents now work and that most parents want to spend some time with their children, that in fact there are more important things than work both for individuals and for society.
The temptation would be to leave an all hours employer, to find one in a better company/sector and maybe some of these women will. Maybe if there were mass defections that would signal a need to change the culture, but if it’s only women it can be written off as them being “less committed”. At the same time, some need to stay and push from within. One way or another, though, an all hours work culture seems to be in need of a total rethink. It doesn’t work for a large number of its employees and, given the UK’s much talked about productivity problems, surely it doesn’t actually improve the bottom line if people are exhausted, stressed and feeling guilty all the time?
Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.