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The Eos Life~Work resource centre: Briefing #2
(first published January 2000, reviewed 1 October 2007)

Managing the life~work boundary

Many employers in the UK put great energy into maximising staff productivity - both in the private and public sectors. The market economy and consumer culture have led to high lifestyle aspirations, living costs and needs for higher household income. These factors have regenerated the economy. But corporate profits and government payrolls do not include the growing social costs of UK work culture. This article reviews the following life~work boundary issues and strategies for individuals and employers:

Over the past two decades the rate of economic and technical change has made increasing demands on organisations and employees with much lower job security.

The UK workforce works the longest hours in Europe and stress is the most common occupational health hazard. High living costs require both partners to work in many families. In our career counselling work we see the serious consequences that long hours and unstable employment have for children and relationships.

Employers are legally liable for the physical health and safety of staff, and in theory for their mental health. But the Health & Safety Executive are still investigating how to protect the UK workforce against stress and other mental health hazards at work.

Learning to manage the life~work boundary has now become a critical issue for personal survival, staff performance and the quality of family life in the UK.

Increasing employer expectations
Most employment contracts commit staff to a minimum number of working hours per week. Many UK organisations also assume a right to claim additional staff time including overtime and travel. However employees are not supposed to let their personal lives intrude into their work time. Absence and lateness are offences but much greater demands on personal time are often taken for granted.

Employers need and expect staff to be fit, skilled, motivated and highly adaptable. In a quest for efficiency some organisations have even made certified illness a disciplinary offence e.g. sickness absence longer than 10 working days in one health authority, or three times in six months in a major airline.

These increasing expectations assume that humans are like machines or computers that can be turned on and off at the start and end of each day with no other commitments and constant performance.

In real life it is not always possible to switch work and personal life on and off at the office door or factory gate.

The effects of work on personal and family life have been virtually taboo subjects in UK work culture and most organisational research. But as job security has declined staying in work has become a basic survival issue for employees despite increasing conflicts between work and personal life.

By 1999 these problems were beginning to get wider recognition in the UK. Organisational health and employee well-being were becoming topical issues in progressive organisations, and some academic research. The UK Government's Healthy Workplace initiative (1999) involved several departments eg the Health & Safety Executive and Department of Health and included work life balance issues. [For news of subsequent government and employers activities see newsletters and events at www.signupweb.net *].

Personal needs and quality of life
Paid work is important for economic survival but it is only one aspect of people's lives. The Life Rainbow (see Figure 1) puts work in its wider context and reminds us that most people have several major life roles.

Figure 1: The life rainbow (adapted from Super, 1980)

The life rainbow illustrates several life roles as parallel paths from childhood to old age. These are child (relationship with living parents), student or learner, worker, leisure person, partner, parent and citizen.

For much of the working population these other roles eg partner, parent and leisure offer greater satisfaction and can involve longer-term commitments than most jobs.

These life roles vary in importance at different life stages. Earning is a top priority for a couple saving for their first house, willing to work long hours for high pay. But their time priorities may reverse when they have children. Identifying our personal life goals and changing priorities are fundamental lifeskills.

Healthy work contracts
Work creates opportunities for earning and social contacts. It may also give status, intellectual fulfilment and opportunities for career development. But it makes demands on time, skill, physical effort, mental energy and psychological commitment. A fair and healthy work contract provides a balance between demands and rewards, and has flexibility both ways to accommodate the changing needs of staff and urgent work priorities.

The life~work time balance
The biggest issue on the life~work boundary is time. Time management is important to employers. It is equally important to employees. Human needs start with sleep (at least 7 hours a day) and essential household tasks - food, hygiene, health care, shopping, maintenance and personal administration. In the past household tasks could be shared with an unwaged partner based at home. Now single people and working couples need an average of 35 hours a week each for household tasks.

The model working week is about 35-37 hours (9-5 with lunch) over 5 days, plus about an hour a day travelling time. In practice 25% of UK employees work over 48 hours. Retail sector staff are often expected to work 8-9 hours x 6 days a week. Transport operators and 24 hour operations (manufacturing, hospitals etc) want maximum use of facilities and expect 10-12 or even 24 hour shifts.

Table 1: Healthy vs. unsafe life~work time balances













Travel to work



Family & friends



Leisure & fitness






Total hours/week



Table 1 contrasts healthy and unsafe life~work time balances. You can compare your own time demands with these figures in the Appendix. To maintain a healthy life-work balance we need about half our time for sleep and essential household tasks (see Figure 2). This leaves the other half (84 hours a week) for work including travel and quality time for family, friends, leisure and fitness.

Figure 2: Pie chart of healthy time balance

The EU Working Time Directive prescribes a maximum 48-hour working week. If additional work travel time is involved this makes serious intrusions into personal time - well over a healthy limit. But in many UK organisations it is nearer the norm. Many employers have persuaded staff to sign contracts to opt out of the EU Directive. Manual workers often rely on extra hours to earn overtime. Many white collar occupations eg managers and teachers and the self-employed also have to work additional time at home and weekends (2-4+ hours a day) giving a 60-70+ hour week.

Travelling time is taking an increasing share of UK working time. The high cost of house moves and short term employment contracts have led to increased commuting to avoid relocation costs, typically 2+ hours a day. In urban areas this may be further increased by congestion to 3+ hours a day and for travelling occupations to 5 or more hours a day.

Figure 3 shows the effects of a 65 hour week combined with 20 hours work travel on an individual's life~work time balance (from Table 1).

Figure 3: Unhealthy time balance

In this example work dominates 50% of the individual's life invading sleep, family and fitness time. Due to fatigue leisure time is more likely to be TV than exercise. There is little time for family and friends and none for citizen contributions (the voluntary work that communities rely on).

This hazardous life~work imbalance may have serious effects on physical health, mental health and relationships, day to day and cumulatively. Sooner or later these personal life effects will also have repercussions back across the life~work boundary. Life~work conflicts degrade motivation and may cause severe stress jeopardising work performance and costing absence for personal sickness or family crises. These are explained in the Institute of Employment Studies report 352 Breaking the long hours culture.

Other life~work boundary issues
Time is only one of several important life~work boundary issues. Table 2 shows how work culture can impact on an individual's wellbeing in six life zones. In effect there are several life~work boundaries. In taking up work an individual enters a legal and psychological contract for each area. The degree of commitment and reward involved is negotiable eg for hours and degree of physical effort involved.

In a healthy organisation each of these areas can enhance an individual's work and personal life, with spare capacity for personal and career development and contributions to their community.

But some employers and professions operate a work culture that makes excessive demands or creates serious boundary conflicts for employees. Once work demands exceed contracted terms the employee's boundaries are at risk of being damaged or grossly violated. Some of these risks may involve other employees eg sexual or racial harassment or abuse, scapegoating or violence.

Other life~work boundary violations may come direct from the policies and practices of the employer or profession eg the long hours culture for junior doctors and teachers, and low or erratic pay in low skilled and casual employment. Such "dangerous organisations" include many public sector services as well as private sector businesses.

Table 2: Life~work boundary issues: work culture and personal wellbeing

Life zone





Work Culture


& family




Work &
travel time


sufficient for needs


low pay &


Pay and

Physical health

& fit

energy &

& strain

or injury






panic, anger
or violence



support &





(gender, race)





Values &

Effects of life on work
Life~work boundary issues flow both ways. Just as work culture can have positive and negative effects on individuals so our personal lives affect our work. Life has its ups and downs for many reasons. When health, wealth and emotional life are good we can give optimum energy to our work and colleagues.

Everyone goes through difficult periods or transitions, particularly after times of loss eg after separation or bereavement. But few individuals or employers realise greatest distress often happens about 6 months after a major life or career event.

These transition crisis periods can result in poor performance, short temper, strategic errors or quitting jobs or relationships. They may follow any major change including positive events eg a new relationship, job, birth of a child or surviving redundancy.

These fluctuations are natural human responses to change during personal life or career changes. They can be more severe if an individual is coping with several traumas or changes in a short period. These are not just staff problems. Managers to the highest level are equally susceptible to transitions.

Few people know that individuals are often at their most positive, innovative and adaptable in the transition recovery phase, soon after such crises if supported through them. Unfortunately many employers discipline or dismiss staff for temporary performance lapses during these transition crises, not realising that a few weeks later they could be their best performers. Like other life~work boundary issues much talent and distress will be saved when individuals and employers learn how to manage transitions and to harness their potential for growth and innovation.

Personal survival strategies
There are many life~work boundary issues. Some are under the individual's control. Others need action by employers. Eos encourages clients to develop a number of survival stragies or life-skills to manage them including:

  1. Become aware of one's life roles (see figure 1) and how they are currently affected by your work.
  2. Identify personal life goals for each life role at least 5 years ahead e.g. for career, relationships, learning, leisure, lifestyle, health and peace of mind. Rank your current priorities; see how life and career goals interact and set objectives to achieve them.
  3. Be aware of recent and current life events. If you are going through a period of change or transition take care at home and work. Try not to quit - at least without checking all options first.
  4. Use Career First Aid tactics during times of stress or change. Increase fitness, check options for key decisions and don't give up. Take time off before getting into a crisis or to stop it getting worse.
  5. Check your life~work boundaries and how far they are respected in your organisation for yourself and others. Discuss or question hazardous or unlawful work situations with managers and colleagues.
  6. Seek advice and support for hazardous situations. In larger organisations contact your Personnel / Human Resources or Medical / Occupational Health departments, or ask advice from staff or union representatives. Outside your organisation you can seek advice from the Citizens Advice Bureau, your doctor, solicitor or a career consultant. Legal action is a last resort and is likely to jeopardise career prospects however justified. Constructive solutions are usually faster and more effective.

Managing staff well being
Experienced managers usually recognise life~work boundary issues and some manage them very skilfully winning the respect and commitment of staff for optimum organisation performance.

However, economic commercial and political pressures in the 1980's and 1990's have seriously undermined respect for staff well-being and personal life boundaries. These are contributing to long-term health and social problems in UK society e.g. increasing alcoholism, family breakdown and juvenile crime. These have major social policy implications requiring new Government initiatives e.g. the effects of working life on families.

Life~work boundary issues need to be part of a strategic framework for professionals co-ordinating occupational health and personnel policy and practice in healthy organisations. Balancing work culture and demands with employee well being is a skill and responsibility of all levels of management and supervision.

Ad-hoc stress management and absence control programmes treat symptoms not causes. Employers and employees need to be aware of life~work boundary issues and how to manage them. Current UK employment law falls far short of best practice.

Life~work boundary issues for individual staff and managers may vary from time to time as their personal circumstances change and in periods of organisation change. Transition management is an important aspect of managing staff well being and performance.

There are still only 24 hours in a day. Many employees are now working well beyond their safe or efficient working capacity. UK work culture must change in the new Millennium to restore and respect the balance between work and personal life. This means working smarter not harder, and working to live not living to work.

Dai Williams, Chartered Occupational Psychologist

First published in the ACDM Newsletter, January 2000. © Eos Career Services 2000-2007

Appendix: Your life~work time balance
You can review your own life~work time balance using the table below. Preferred hours for each activity may be different if you work full-time or part-time, unpaid as a parent, student or carer, or if you are looking for work. They may also vary according to your personal commitments and lifestyle e.g. if you are a single parent, or have a partner to share household tasks. You can add other activities important to you e.g. time for study or religion.

 Life zones  hours
per week
+ / -
changes you want
 Sleep    49    
 Household: personal
 tasks, meals, shopping
 Work time: paid & unpaid    35    
 Travel to/from work    5    
 Family & friends    20    
 Leisure & fitness    20    
 Citizen: voluntary roles    4    
 Other:     ...    
 Total hours per week 168 168 0  

Try the Eos "Get-a-life" life-work balance chart
If you have Excel 97 you can click here to chart your own time balance (getalife.xls). If this file does not open on your browser contact Eos to request a copy by Email. This a stand-alone programme that you can share with others.

Other Eos life~work themes can be found at http://www.eoslifework.co.uk/themes.htm
Your comments on these issues are welcome on the Eos Life-Work Forum .

Update 2003:
The life-work boundary issues raised in this paper 3 years ago still apply in many UK organisations. The UK Government sponsored a number of initiatives with voluntary groups and major employers to increase awareness of work-life balance issues. For recent developments see the following links:
Employer initiatives see www.employersforwork-lifebalance.org.uk
UK Government activities see www.dti.gov.uk/work-lifebalance
and the Healthy Workplace initiative at www.signupweb.net
For an independent review of progress see Work-Life Balance, beyond the rhetoric (2002) by the Institute of Employment Studies at www.employment-studies.co.uk/summary/summary.php?id=384.
For these and other Organizational Health issues in the UK see www.ukfoh.org.uk

reviewed 1 October 2007

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