How Work-Life Balance is Changing: Trends and Risks to Look Out For

Editorial Board OpenUp
Reviewed by psychologist Ida Dommerholt

Predicting the future is something that only happens in the movies. And this article, apparently. Because we’re about to tell you which trends in the field of employee work-life balance you can watch out for in the future. After all, we’re going through a period of rapid change. 

 

Based on five current trends, we’re going to explore the associated risks and how OpenUp can help you navigate these. 

 

Why a good work/life balance is important

 

The main reason to prioritize work-life balance is that it’s a prerequisite for happy and healthy employees. 

 

Employees who have plenty of time for themselves: 

  • Sleep better at night
  • Maintain higher energy levels because they have plenty of time for socializing, hobbies, and exercise
  • Are in a better mood and more patient with others 
  • Experience more job satisfaction, which makes them more motivated to carry out their duties
  • Are sharper and can focus better

 

As you can see, a good work-life balance is great for both the employee and the employer. Ultimately, balance means less people taking sick leave and a lower rate of employee turnover. A good mental health package is steadily climbing its way up the list of requirements employees have for their employers. Unlimited access to consultations with licensed psychologists doesn’t just help to improve employee mental health and reduce sick leave, it also prevents resignations.

 

 

Trends related to work-life balance that we’re seeing right now

 

We’re seeing a number of patterns in terms of employee work-life balance. Some of these have been slowly gaining traction for years – such as domestic equality, where household chores are no longer being divided up according to gender – while others saw a rapid boom as a result of COVID – such as the need for flexibility. 

 

Trend 1: Do you live to work or work to live? 

 

Let’s take a moment to think about the term work-life balance. It suggests that working and living are two separate activities. During the week you work and on your days off you live. In other words, you work to live. 

 

This view is for many people – especially younger generations – a thing of the past. We work because we want to contribute to society. Work shouldn’t feel like work, it should feel like living. If we have to take a slight salary cut to do a job that aligns with our sense of purpose, then we’re happy to do it. 

 

Research by PwC shows that we’d rather earn less and work for a purpose-driven organization that matches our values, than earn much more while – for example – polluting the planet. 

 

We’re also seeing a growing group of people who are less invested in self-fulfillment, materialism and recognition because these things can be a distraction from the things that really matter in life. 

  

Trend 2: A shift from quantity to quality

 

This trend has been quietly going on in the background for some time now, but during the period of lockdown who-even-knows-at-this-point, it gathered serious momentum. 

 

Above all, jobs that require creativity, knowledge and innovation benefit from shifting the emphasis away from quantitative rules, targets and nine-to-five work patterns. The preference is to let employees tailor their day to suit their tasks and energy levels. There’s less focus on hours worked and more emphasis on the output delivered.

 

Want to exercise at noon and start working again at 8pm because that’s when you’re the most productive? Why not! Like pulling over forty-hour weeks for a particular period and taking it easy the next? That’s great too. As long as the work gets done and the results speak for themselves. 

 

Trend 3: Actively avoiding burnout

 

Research shows that baby boomers (those born after the Second World War) and generation X (born before 1980) were less concerned with preventing mental and physical burnout. 

 

Younger generations (millennials – born before 1996 and Gen Z – born after 1996) are much more concerned with this. They’ve seen their parents and older family members struggle with work and their mental health and they want to avoid that. Being brave enough to say an honest “no” to a particular task or project because you want to protect your mental health is becoming increasingly normal. And we applaud that. 

 

A good mental health package is increasingly working its way up the list of requirements that job seekers have. Unlimited access to consultations with licensed psychologists therefore not only helps to improve employee mental health and avoid absenteeism, it also attracts new talent. 

 

Trend 4: More space for flexibility

 

“Creatives are the new athletes” is more than just a slogan on a t-shirt. It also sums up the times we’re living in pretty nicely. This is an era of creative intelligence. Innovation, knowledge development, concept development, and content creation have never been so important. The knowledge economy is growing by the second.

 

Particularly in the creative domain, time and place are becoming less important. Most creatives don’t appreciate being forced to sit down at a desk between particular hours. Flexibility in terms of workplace, office hours and hours to be worked generally suits them much better. 

 

Trend 5: Equality in the domestic sphere

 

There will come a point when historians will look back on our time and say: “Wow, that’s so interesting, people used to have gender-specific roles in the home.” We’re seeing these steadily fade away and concepts like “man” and “woman” are becoming increasingly irrelevant to younger generations. This has an effect on the interaction between parenthood, domestic chores, and work. Parenthood and domestic chores are increasingly becoming tasks for all partners in the home, not just one (female) partner. 

 

Where things currently stand in terms of paternity leave: Legally speaking, the “partner” of the birth mother can take a week of paid leave and request an additional five weeks off. Birth mothers get ten weeks of maternity leave – even if they want to go back to work after three weeks and leave their partner at home with the newborn. And for adoption, statutory leave is only six weeks. 

 

Employees are increasingly drawing these rules into question because they are often seen as unjust and discriminatory. There are calls to adopt a Swedish model where both parents get 480 days to share between them. 

 

Trends don’t apply to everyone

 

The trends discussed above won’t apply to everybody. We see differences between the generations and people from certain educational backgrounds. 

 

We try not to define people based on when they were born, but there are certain general differences between the generations that you can’t help but notice. 

 

Older generations are much more likely to value stability while younger generations see change as a part of daily life. This means that the need for flexibility and equality in the domestic sphere plays a greater role for younger people.

 

Finally, older generations might feel frustrated with the apparently unstructured or disorganized ways of working that younger generations prefer. 

 

In terms of educational background, taking a different approach to “time” and “location” mainly comes into play for people with office jobs. These jobs are mostly filled by academics and college graduates, unlike jobs that are more tied to a particular time and location. For example, consider a business consultant or backend developer as opposed to a gardener or barista. 

 

Risks associated with these trends

 

As a HR professional there are a number of things you need to watch out for in light of changing employee needs. 

 

More efficient versus more burnout

 

As work-life balance changes – with hybrid work forms gaining popularity – there’s an increasing emphasis on digital tools designed to improve efficiency. Zoom and Teams cut out your commute time. Trello and Jira boards help you streamline team tasks. Slack accelerates communication. With Sharepoint or Google Docs you can collaborate together on the same documents. 

 

But as Inc.com writes: “Workplace tech has allowed us to move at speeds we never imagined, but we now know screen fatigue is real, workplace burnout is reaching new heights, and switching between email, instant messages and texts is giving us work whiplash.” We’re suffering from digital overload. 

 

Three simple intervention techniques can help you out here:

 

  1.     Urge employees to start their workday with a paper notebook and a pen, instead of immediately flipping open their laptop and reading their emails. This way they can, for example, jot down their goals and intentions for the day. 
  2.     Encourage employees to take plenty of breaks. Read our article about this here.
  3.     Discourage employees from taking their phones to meetings. Meetings are valuable moments of human contact. The mere presence of a phone can distract from this. 
  4.   Also discourage employees taking laptops to meetings and instead go for notebooks and pens.
  5.   Get smart with the digital tools. Are they really necessary? Do you really need to use three different communication platforms if one will do? Or can you come up with an analogue tool that works just as well or better than the digital version? 

 

Digital natives versus digital immigrants

 

Another consequence of the digitization of our workplace is the growing divide between digital natives (younger generations who grew up in an age of information and technology) and people who are slightly less comfortable with technology. 

 

Here too, it can help to be smart when choosing digital tools. And to invest in everybody’s digital skills. 

 

Inequality amongst those who benefit

 

Taking a different approach to “time” and “location” is something that mainly benefits people with office jobs. These jobs are mostly filled by academics and college graduates, unlike jobs that are more tied to a particular time and location. For example, consider a business consultant or web developer as opposed to a gardener or barista.  

 

Even within organizations, this can create inequality. A cleaner, receptionist or chef isn’t going to benefit from increased flexibility, the way that a manager, HR professional or consultant will. 

 

Flexibility versus uncertainty

 

Many employees are looking for flexibility. Both in terms of where they work and when they work. As a result of this, we’re seeing a steep climb in the number of freelancers: an increase of at least 25 percent since 2010. 

 

This flexibility can also be good for employers: you can bring in freelancers when things get busy or you need specialist knowledge and thank them for their help once you don’t need them anymore.

 

But this flexibility also has a downside: uncertainty. Both for the freelancers themselves – because they don’t have income security – and for organizations. There are fewer barriers preventing freelancers from leaving than there are for salaried employees. And when a freelancer leaves, they take their newly acquired knowledge and experience with them. 

 

Free time versus work

 

If you can work all the time and from anywhere, the line between work and free time starts to blur. Employees are always on. Home stops being a place you go to relax and instead becomes a place of work. And the same applies to vacations. 

 

This means there’s a risk that employees will become overworked or develop burnout. Poor sleep can also be a consequence of blurred boundaries between work and free time.

 

OpenUp offers a free program about creating a good work-life balance

 

People who work remotely miss out on opportunities

 

One concern of people who work remotely is that they’ll have fewer opportunities for promotion, wage increases and interesting projects. Even though they might perform their role just as well as the people who come into the office more often. Simply because they’re less visible. 

 

Promotions, wage increases and handing out projects needs to be based on performance, not physical attendance. 

 

What do these trends mean for you?

 

These trends are just generalizations and predictions, they’re not hard facts. Things in your organization might be different. 

 

That’s why it’s important to keep having conversations with your employees about their needs in regards to work-life balance. Collectively and individually. Face to face, through surveys, through town hall meetings (where all employees can get together) and in team meetings. 

 

Because continuously collecting information about the needs within your organization is what will really help you to predict the future. 

 

The psychologists at OpenUp can also help by providing managers and employees with the right tools to achieve a better work-life balance. Read more information here.