Family structure changed in the European Union over the last decades bringing the issue of work-life balance to the forefront. Changes such as an increase in the number of families where both parents are working, part-time or full-time, an increase in single-parent families, job mobility resulting in a greater distance from caring relatives such as grandparents, all contributed to making the reconciliation of work and family a primary issue.
Can policies influence work-life balance, and if so, in which way? Is there a direct correlation between policy measures and satisfaction with the reconciliation of work and family life?
A study answers the question on what contributes to work-life balance using data from the fifth wave of the European Working Conditions Survey collected in 2010. Twenty-five member states of the European Union were in the sample.
When we attempt to balance out work and life (by the way, is work not part of life?) the organization of time and of spatial flexibility are of core importance.
Policy regimes (the manner in which issues are approached) differ considerably in Europe and are distinguished mainly by the flexibility they allow in working hours, autonomy of the employee in structuring one’s own tasks during working hours and the allowance paid for unsocial working hours.
People experience unsocial working hours in the industry when they feel to be working only to increase investor’s capital as profitably as possible or when employees working in the service sector are asked to meet customer demands at various times, night and day.
In contrast, social working hours are represented by high working time autonomy and employee-friendly flexibility, even if these entail working additional hours from home, meaning no set working hours and possibly higher work pressure.
Autonomy contributes most of all to a feeling that working hours fit well with family life and other social commitments. By contrast, long or unsocial working hours, feeling the pressure at work or working in multiple locations have negative impact on the work-life balance for both men and women.
Working hours had more impact on the work-life balance than spatial flexibility.
The most people-friendly working environment best supporting the work-life balance can be found in the Northern European states, which allow high working hours autonomy and flexibility.
In contrast, the lowest level of autonomy can be found in Lithuania, Slovakia, Latvia, Poland, Portugal and the UK, together with Ireland, Italy and Spain. These countries have the most unsocial working hours and offer the least favorable working position.
Differences within the country clusters allowed researchers to conclude that characteristics on the individual level may be more important than policy regimes.
However, the type of work organization does not simply correlate with employees’ life satisfaction: Employees in the UK and in the South are more than twice as satisfied with their work-life balance than employees in Eastern European countries. Less astonishingly, people from the Northern Europe are twice as satisfied as those in the Eastern European countries.
What does this mean?
Autonomy and flexible working hours are central to work-life balance, but they are not the only means to increase life satisfaction. Looking at similar political strategies in different countries, the outcomes are different for the individual. It is not only the social policy but also culture, expectations and values which contribute to satisfaction levels with work and life.
Spatial flexibility, meaning working in different locations (e.g. homeworking) does not necessarily contribute to a better work-life balance.
Additional to policy regimes, local traditions, culture and the way in which we are accustomed to organizing our lives all influence our satisfaction with the work-life balance.
This does not mean that family policy is not important, but rather that each policy needs to be adapted to the values, expectations and traditions of the people it is intended for.
European policy makers need to be aware that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.
Anttila, Timo; Oinas, Tomi; Tammelin, Mia & Nätti, Jouko 2015. Working-Time Regimes and Work-Life Balance in Europe. European Sociological Review, Vol. 31, No. 6, 713 – 724.