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Unions, not self-help, improve work-life balance


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Peter Fleming has written an interesting opinion piece for the Guardian: he argues that self-help gurus have given the overworked unrealistic and innocuous advice, advocating that workers “set boundaries” or find a new job. Fleming writes that such advice is difficult or impossible to apply in today’s hyper-competitive workforce, and that workers should rather focus on organizing and creating unions. Read Fleming in partial below, in full via the Guardian.

People encouraged to look as if they are always doing something ironically become less productive. Recent research has convincingly demonstrated that rest and shorter work-days can allow us to work much faster and smarter compared with the excruciating and ultimately needless marathons that are currently the norm.

What’s more, some employees invariably begin to fake these long hours given how difficult it is to pull off in reality. A study of management consultants in the US discovered that some workers devised ingenious ways to give the impression that they were following the 80-hour rule.

Sure, this corporate camouflage allowed the consultants to pick up their kids from football and eat a meal. But maybe it also helped get the work done successfully and on time. Here we see productivity (performing a task well) and the culture of work (staying in the office till late) strangely diverge.

Most employers realise that something is amiss, but the ideology of work seems stronger now than ever. Some people have even convinced themselves that they love being wedded to their job 24/7, what researchers label “enthusiastic workaholics”. They’re the most difficult self-harmers to reason with. They can’t even think about a vacation without having a panic attack.

The trouble with much work-life balance advice is that it’s been captured by the self-help movement. It all centres on the individual. If you want to rekindle your wellbeing and discover your inner potential, then take control of your choices, find a job that better fits your temperament, erect firm boundaries between work and leisure and learn to say no.

This gives an unrealistic picture of what is possible in most jobs, and would probably end with an untimely trip to the Jobcentre if taken seriously. In other words, work-life balance gurus assume that everyone is a middle-aged creative type, living in London with family money to fall back on, and firmly within their rights to tell the boss to bother off. Yeah, right.

The trick is to see the ritual of overwork as a societal pressure, not an individual fault. And much of this pressure stems from the disempowerment of the workforce that has occurred over the last 20 years. Insecurity – real or imagined – naturally makes it more likely that people will sacrifice everything for their job. That’s why confronting work-mania as an individual is pointless. We need to come together as a group to voice these concerns if progressive policy and legislation are to be forged. Otherwise little will change.

Want a heathier work-life balance? Join a union. Or better still, create your own. But steer clear of that self-help section at the airport bookshop. It pretends the ideology of work might still be tamed by individual willpower. But it can’t.