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Post-pandemic policies will have to reflect people’s changed attitudes to work-life balance

Covid-19 and its aftermath changed our view of what it takes to achieve a good work-life balance. Policy-makers and employers might have to catch up, writes Sandra O’Connell

Research from Eurofound, the EU agency for the improvement of living and working conditions, suggests workers emerged from the pandemic with a greater focus on their personal and family lives, and wanting to spend less time at their place of work, or at least have greater flexibility around doing so.

Eurofound’s surveys cover European working conditions and quality of life. Across the EU, 82 per cent of respondents say that work fits well with their family or social commitments. In Ireland, that figure is 84.7 per cent.

“What we know from previous research around working time is that long working hours, shift work and night work are all negatives. What is viewed as most positive is working time that allows for flexibility, where you can dictate start and end times within the limits of core working hours,” says Barbara Gerstenberger, head of the working life unit at Eurofound.

One of its surveys asks whether or not workers find it easy to take one or two hours off to deal with a family emergency.


“People who say ‘easy’ are much more likely to have a good work-life balance. That’s a very important message for employers,” she says.

The health and wellbeing of our employees is of the utmost importance, and we encourage and support our employees to prioritise their own wellbeing

—  Sonya Kavanagh, Kildare County Council

“Of course it’s not always possible to allow people to go for an hour or two from a workplace, but in many cases it would be possible and is an easy thing to do, and has a huge impact on how well workers feel about their work-life balance.”

Working hours

Eurofound’s research indicates a clear desire among many to work fewer hours. Of respondents who typically work 48 hours a week, three quarters (74 per cent) would like to work shorter hours.

“But even among those who work what we think of as a normal 35-to-40-hour week, 40 per cent would like to work shorter hours if they could, which is a very clear indication about working time. There are clear wishes to work less. People want to have more time for non-work-related issues. Any policy-maker that suggests a four-day week would be elected,” she adds.

On the other hand, of those currently working less than 20 hours a week, almost half (47 per cent) would like to work longer hours. “They are obviously underemployed and not making ends meet,” she says. A redistribution of working hours, if possible, would appear to benefit people on both sides of that equation.

“Currently 35 to 40 hours is what we learn as the normal working week, but if 40 per cent would work less if they could, we might look again at what is normal,” she suggests. Experiments in the UK, France and Spain have already shown that productivity does not suffer when moving from a five- to a four-day working week, for example.

“It is a very interesting question for employers, especially in a time of labour shortage, where people have the luxury of picking jobs,” adds Gerstenberger.

Finding a balance

Work-life balance has moved centre-stage in much of the public sector. According to Sonya Kavanagh, chief executive of Kildare County Council, “the work-life balance of our employees is a core focus”.

The council’s work-life policies provide for many types of leave and flexibility in addition to annual leave, including special leave arrangements for bereavement, parents and study, among others.

The council is also fully behind the code of practice regarding the right to disconnect.

“The health and wellbeing of our employees is of the utmost importance, and we encourage and support our employees to prioritise their own wellbeing. Disconnecting from work is vital for wellbeing and to achieving a healthy and sustainable work-life balance,” says Kavanagh.

Balancing needs

The private sector is equally on board.

“Most employers view the progression of remote working in its varying degrees as a positive development, despite ongoing concerns regarding the practical implementation of the right to request remote work. However, in the best interests of company culture, collaboration and communication, hybrid rather than completely remote models of working appear to be the best way to balance both the needs of the employee with the operational demands of businesses,” says Aebhric McGibney, director of public and international affairs at Dublin Chamber.

The idea that you can earn a London salary and live somewhere else with a lower cost of living is a fallacy

—  Aebhric McGibney, Dublin Chamber

This reflects strong anecdotal feedback from businesses about the value of in-person collaboration and the need for staff interaction through hybrid working to build company culture, avoid work silos, and strengthen links with new recruits.

“Hybrid also ensures that the jobs stay in Ireland, which is good for the economy,” McGibney points out. “Remote working opens up the possibility of jobs moving out of Ireland to lower-cost locations. The idea that you can earn a London salary and live somewhere else with a lower cost of living is a fallacy.”

Getting it right matters. “How we blend working from home and office has clear implications in our work organisation, and Covid has left a new equilibrium,” says Massimiliano Mascherini, head of Eurofound’s social policy unit.

Ireland has the highest share of employees working from home in Europe, and the highest increase of people working from home in comparison to the pre-Covid period.

“When we change work organisation, we make a change that affects a large part of our lives and which brings social change as well. We need to consider that,” says Mascherini.

It can have a particularly great impact on young people. “Clearly young people are making their first step into the labour market and are also at an age when work has an important social aspect. So, basically, working from home can actually make that entrance more complicated, including the social component, because it is then hard to meet new people and to build their social networks,” he points out.

“We will never go back to the way we were before, but there are issues that need to be considered to understand the long-term consequences of this new way of working.”

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell

Sandra O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times