Lately the work-life balance issue has been reawakened following the announcement of the directive by the European Commission that would be increasing paternity leave to 10 days and introducing new rights to employees about flexible working arrangements.     

Work-life balance, based on the notion of the multiplicity of needs inherent in the life of a human being, acknowledges that workers have other needs to satisfy beside the economic ones. To many people, especially those who are in gainful employment, work tends to be the central activity around which all other activities revolve. 

In other words the work schedule determines in one way or another how individuals fulfil their commitments in the non-work domain which includes family life, one’s recreational and leisure activities together with other aspects related to religion and one’s personal needs.  

Work-life balance has become a more topical issue since many institutions are demanding from their employees a time commitment which in the past was only expected from a smaller number of core workers. 

Round the clock work which entails night work, evening work and work on a shift basis has been with us for quite a long time. 

The labour force has always included workers who have to adjust to irregular social hours such as police officers, hospital and airport staff, maintenance workers in water and electricity service. In today’s labour market there are other categories of workers who have to contend with irregular hours of work. This is due to the exigencies of today’s labour market that are forcing certain categories of companies to adopt a controlled flexible work schedule.

Indeed digitalisation in the labour market is being utilised to enforce a 24-hour service in economic sectors such as that of the on-line gaming and call centres.

While regulations may define how long we can work the designation of the work schedule by and large remains the prerogative of the employers. The exigencies of the firm tend to take prominence in the rationale upon which the work schedule is designed. 

The institutional arrangements of the world of work have not completely kept pace with the changing realities surrounding the modern family. Does this mean that the ideal work-life balance to a number of workers will continue to be just a pipe dream? Has the digitalised economy made this ideal more elusive?

The management of time in demands developing strategies in order to keep the household operating successfully on a day-to-day basis

In answering these questions we have to bear in mind that workers in measuring time allocated to the non-work domain may have a different perspective from that implied by the ‘balance’ metaphor. 

Workers tend to be aware that there is no mechanical device to regulate and adjust the distribution between work and non-work domains in equitable ways.  Indeed there tends to be a range of possible relationships between work and non-work domains which can shape and influence one’s perspective of time. 

To the spouses of a two-earner family the task of house holding and the obligations of the family make a considerable demand on time. The management of time in this type of family demands developing strategies in order to keep the household operating successfully on a day-to-day basis. 

In trying to manage these demands of their working life the spouses find themselves involved in the struggle to create quality time for their children or each other. 

In this attempt to reconcile work commitments with family obligations these spouses may feel time squeezed between the two, leaving them little if any time to devote to their personal and social needs. Time squeeze implies giving up time for friends, sleep or leisure activities. The time and effort spent travelling between home and work may contribute to this time-squeeze feeling. What may however exacerbate this feeling is the long-hour culture which has become a characteristic of the workers occupying the higher scales of the hierarchy in the set-up of the organisation in which they are employed. 

The input of long hours of work does not form part of their contract of work. 

It is not written in the contract of work and neither explicitly stated. However, the work schedule of these employees is tacitly accepted to be in addition to the formal contract of work. The number of this category of workers has been increasing as the post-industrial society, heavily reliant on the service industry, has brought about an extension of the financial and insurance service sector complemented by heavy investment in online gaming.    

The perception of time may therefore play an important part in the individual relationship between work and non-work. It can depend on the leeway their working time arrangements give them and how it can be utilised to satisfy the multiplicity of their needs. 

The family friendly measures being proposed in the European Commission directive about the extension of paternity leave and the introduction of new rights related to flexible work arrangements may go a long way in providing a part of that leeway when and where it is mostly needed.         

Saviour Rizzo is a former director of the Centre for Labour Studies at the University of Malta.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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