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Rethinking ‘work-life balance’  

26 April 2024

The Government needs to understand how people’s values are shifting, says Paul Bickley


More “balance” in favour of “life” often means creating flexibility in paid forms of work for the sake of unpaid forms of work, such as childcare

More “balance” in favour of “life” often means creating flexibility in paid forms of work for the sake of unpaid forms of work, such as childcare

IS WORK “a good thing” — a human good rather than a source of economic growth? Is it morally preferable for people to work or to do other things? As AI and similar technologies promise (or threaten) radical change in the economy, now is the time to bring these questions out of the shadows and into the open.

Arguably, something perhaps unique is happening in the UK. We do not see work as the primary driver of a good life. Indeed, 43 per cent of people in the UK say that it would be a good thing if less importance was placed on work (up from 26 per cent in 1999). We have fallen out of love with work.

Meanwhile, the Government has expressed a desire to “get Britain back to work”; achieving that goal may require more than more carrots and more sticks. We need to understand why our values in relation to work are shifting.

This connects to two theological observations about work. Neither is unique to Christian theology: they might even be described as obvious, despite being mostly ignored in practice and policy.

FIRST, there is a vital and ineradicable human dimension to work. Published to coincide with the 90th anniversary of the first papal encyclical on “the social question”, Laborem Exercens is another encyclical on both the nature of work and its contemporary curses.

Its central argument is that work has dual qualities: the objective (the products and services that we can get paid for) and the subjective: “As a person, a human being works; they perform various actions belonging to the work process; independently of their objective content, these actions must all serve to realise their humanity. . .”

In other words, work is not just what humans do to make money and pay bills. It is as much about our souls as it is about our bodies and minds. If this offers any kind of insight, then growing indifference to work should trouble us.

Second, the encyclical — alongside other traditions of Christian thought on work — balances this idea that work is a vital part of our human identity with the idea that it is toilsome. In many instances that are obvious in everyday life, work is burdensome, difficult, sometimes dangerous, and vulnerable to injustice and inequity. It doesn’t always meet our need for achievement within our vocation.

Work is both necessary and open to transcendence, but meaning, purpose, and transcendence will always be mixed with “painful toil”. Any high view of work has to be accompanied by an analysis of how and why it often falls so short of ideals, and what can realistically be done to ensure that it creates a dividend in human development. If the public in the UK do not see work as particularly attractive, perhaps it is not successfully achieving its subjective goals.

OUR collective psychological response has been to deprioritise work: work is necessary, but we don’t want it to eat up so much of our lives. It could be said that we have a greater appetite for work-life balance. But there is a problem with conceptualising the problem in this way.

In this phrase, we think that we know what “work” means: hours spent in paid employment. But we don’t really address the question what “life” means. For most people, it’s not a few more rounds of golf, or reading a few extra novels a year.

Rather, more “balance” in favour of “life” often means creating flexibility in paid forms of work for the sake of unpaid forms of work — for instance, creating more space for responsibilities such as childcare, or looking after elderly relatives.

How will we get Britain working again? Governments (and employers) should not ignore the possibility that many of those who are economically inactive may be doing things while “out of work” that contribute richly to the common good and are vitally important.

Part of our response should be to shape work so that it maximises the opportunity for people to engage and flourish in what, according to the Christian understanding, are also forms of work, though they are unpaid.

The report Working Five to Nine: How we can deliver work-life integration looks at the interplay between different forms of human work, some of which are being severely underrated and undervalued in our public conversation.

Paul Bickley is Head of Political Engagement at Theos. This is an edited extract from his report, Working Five to Nine: How we can deliver work-life integration, which is part of Theos’s 2024 Work Shift series.


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