Technology lets us blend our work and home lives in ways that were once impossible. We can check emails in bed, message family from our desks, access documents in the cloud and attend conference calls from the sofa. While blurring the line between the office and home creates extra flexibility, it can also mean we never switch off from work.
So the question is no longer if we can mix our work and home lives, but how much we should fuse them to feel the happiest and most fulfilled.
We surveyed 1,000 British workers to find out how well they balance their work and home lives in an increasingly connected world.
To compare one person to another, we needed a consistent rating scale. We asked our survey takers to rate their work-life balance out of 10, then used their ratings to find out how many people have a good, average or poor work-life balance.
The average person rated their work-life balance 7 out of 10, which you might think of as a reasonable balance overall but with room for improvement. One in three Brits had a good work-life balance, which we defined as 8 or higher out of 10.
But 29% of the workers we surveyed had a poor work-life balance, rating their balance 5 or less out of 10. Across the nation’s 32.5-million-strong workforce, that’s equivalent to 9.4 million British workers who have a poor work-life balance. Not content with a 5-out-of-10 life, half of these people said they feel unable to maintain their current work-life situation for longer than a year before something would have to give – whether that’s at home or at work.
Who are these people with a poor work-life balance? To answer this question, we need to individually analyse each factor that might strain someone’s work-life balance. For example, people might be happy to work extra hours for more money, but when money is taken out of the equation, how does the number of hours someone works typically affect their work-life balance?
All else being equal, the things that affected people’s work-life balance most strongly were, in order, the number of hours they worked, how much they earned, whether they finished work late in the evening and whether they lived with a partner.
People who work more hours than average and get home late are among the most likely to have a poor work-life balance. Earning more money helps to redress the balance, but doesn’t fully cancel out the negative effects of a strenuous work life. For example, imagine a 35-year-old worked 50 hours a week, typically stopped working at 7pm, and earned £29,000 a year (the average full-time salary). There’s a 92% chance that person would describe their work-life balance as poor, based on our findings. If that person’s salary increased to £50,000 a year, their chance of having a good work-life balance would drop to 64% – significantly lower, but still more likely than not.
Living with a partner also helps reduce your chances of having a poor work-life balance, possibly because combined earnings can ease financial pressure, and sharing the burden of household chores makes life at home more relaxing. After working hours, earnings, and relationship status were taken into account, there were no significant effects of age, gender, management level, or parenthood.
We asked our survey takers whether the cause of their poor work-life balance was their work or home life. Seventy-two percent said work was the sole cause and 7% said home. The other 21% said their poor balance was due to a mix of issues at home and the office. The main causes were that they either work too many hours or those hours fall at disruptive times.
Work encroaching into the home was the next most significant cause of a poor balance. Over a third of people said taking work home harms their work-life balance, while 29% specifically took issue with managing work emails at home.
Looking after kids was a contributing factor for 15% of people with a poor work-life balance, whereas 36% of people with a good work-life balance thought not having kids was a reason for their successful balance. While it’s possible these groups of people might have different priorities, our result still suggests that people without kids might overestimate how badly parenting would damage their work-life balance.
The bottom line is that for many people, too much work either takes time away from other parts of their life or breaks up the time they have. The three most common negative effects of a poor balance were having no time to relax (63%), no time for hobbies or exercise (61%), and missing out on sleep (59%) – all things that are needed to maintain your mental health.
We looked at how people’s work-life balance differs by how many hours a week they work, and found that for many, the 50-hour mark is a breaking point. Four in five people who work 50 or more hours a week said they have a poor work-life balance, which is twice the proportion of people who work 40 to 49 hours a week (40%).
The difference between these groups amounts to only 1 to 2 hours each day, but if this becomes a weekly habit it can add up. Working more than 8 hours per day isn’t restricted to bleary-eyed financial traders or multi-job minimum wagers. 3.3 million UK employees regularly work more than 48 hours per week, and unpaid overtime, such as shop assistants being expected to come in before the store opens and closes, is fairly widespread.
Our results show that people with a poor work-life balance tended to finish work at 6pm or later, while those with a good balance tended to finish by 5pm at the latest. People in both groups went to bed at about the same time, which suggests that people’s free time in the evening is what suffers most when clocking off later.
Working long hours can put a strain on your relationships either at work, at home, or both.
Around half of our survey takers said at some point they’ve resented a boss for expecting them to do extra work, rising to almost two-thirds of people who work 50 or more hours a week. But almost as many bosses share the feeling: 42% of bosses have resented their workers for not doing extra work when needed.
At home, 28% of partners have at some point resented a loved one for committing to work instead of spending time with them – women were more likely than men to admit they’ve resented a partner due to a poor work-life balance.
In the end, something has to give and people must often make a sacrifice to keep the money coming in and their career moving in the right direction. If you’re currently burning the candle at both ends, with emails pinging during evening meals and piles of papers taking precedence over your favourite podcast on the bus to work, you might be wondering if it’ll all eventually be worth it.
We asked people whether they’ve ever made sacrifices at home for the sake of work. The most common sacrifice people said they made was routinely missing out on sleep (45%), followed by often working late and often managing work emails at home (41%). In the long run, 4 out of every 10 sacrifices people said they made turned out to be worth it.
Most thought it was worth ‘often working late’; with two-thirds of people finding it to be a worthwhile use of their time. The least worthwhile sacrifice was neglecting their health, diet or exercise – 4 in 10 have done it but only 1 in 10 of those people said it was for the greater good.
Only 7% of people said they’d delayed having a child for the sake of their career, but interestingly, almost half of those said the decision was the right one in the end.
Forty-one percent described managing work emails at home as a sacrifice. Though many said it was worthwhile, the fact that they consider it a sacrifice suggests that our work-life balance might suffer when technology blurs the lines between work and home.
Phones and other screens can connect us with work at all times. When people feel in control of the situation, technology might be a real boon to someone’s work-life balance by enabling them to work where and when it suits them. But lose control of how technology brings you closer to work and you might find it invading your private time.
Almost half of respondents (44%) said they get notifications about work while they’re not working. People who get notifications while off the clock were nearly twice as likely as those who don’t to say that their work-life balance is poor. The reason is most likely because using the same devices for your professional and personal life breaks down boundaries between work and home.
Two-thirds of people who get notifications outside work feel some kind of negative emotion when they hear that ping. Feeling irritated is the most common response our survey takers reported, but some described arguably more pervasive emotions that could ruin a whole evening of free time – 30% said hearing about work while off the clock makes them feel anxious, while 28% said it makes them stressed.
When work can pop up on the same devices we use for entertainment, one way to protect yourself from work distractions is to do away with technology altogether – at least for a while. Technology-free bedrooms have been recommended to help people feel less anxious and improve their sleep.
Almost 1 in 3 people we surveyed said they would like to have a room where they can relax without technology and another 11% said they already have one. Older people are more likely to have a tech-free room – 23% of baby boomers have one compared to 8% of millennials. But millennials are more likely than other age groups to want a tech-free room, with 36% of millennials, 26% of Gen Xers and 22% of baby boomers craving a screen-free space.
Separating work and home is an especially difficult challenge for people who spend all day working from home. A tech-free room could help them switch off. But the answer instead might be to confine work to one room, which is something only 1 in 8 workers at home achieve.
Thanks to modern technology, as many as 4 million Brits now regularly work from home and this number is expected to rise. Microsoft’s Working Without Walls paper showed that the top benefit employees felt from working at home was an improved work-life balance. Likewise, we found that the more often our survey takers worked from home, the more often they said they have a good work-life balance.
Half of our survey takers who work remotely said the opportunity to work at home benefited their mental health. This makes sense because it’s been shown that a poor work-life balance can harm your mental health, but the implication is huge, our results suggest that, of the 4 million remotely working Brits, that 2 million people have better mental health because they can work from home.
Being closer to home also improved family relationships for 41% of remote workers we surveyed. A third said it helped their finances, possibly due to reduced commuting costs or fewer temptations to buy that morning coffee.
The term ‘work-life balance’ was coined in the mid-1980s and creates a mental image of your home life at one end of a see-saw and the office at the other. As one gets more attention, the other suffers. But now we have the technology to blend these two core aspects of our lives, they don’t always have to be in direct competition. People who feel good at work often bring happiness home, and vice versa.
Our results suggest that getting the balance right requires choice and flexibility. On average, people who at least sometimes work from home were more likely to feel the two sides of their life worked in harmony, whereas those who were forced to check emails at home and leave the office after 6pm typically felt less positive about their situation.
To avoid work life becoming indistinguishable from your time off, you can create rules about how and when you use technology at home, like switching off notifications after a set time. And if you do a shift at home instead of in the office, keeping a few guidelines doesn’t hurt. Workers at home were most productive when they could confine work to a dedicated room, and had the best work-life balance when they gave themselves strict working hours and well-defined lunch breaks.
We’d love for you to share our findings for non-commercial purposes. Please link back to this page to give our researchers credit and your readers the full, balanced picture.
We surveyed 1,000 British people in employment in January 2019. We asked them to rate their work-life balance on a scale of 1 to 10 and used their rating to define their work-life balance as poor (5 or lower), average (6 or 7) or good (8 or higher). The definitions for poor, average and good work-life balance were based on the median and interquartile range of self-rated scores.
We estimated the number of British workers with a poor work-life balance by finding the percentage of our survey takers who had a poor work-life balance and calculating that proportion of the UK’s workforce, according to December 2018 estimates from the Office for National Statistics.
We estimated the number of British people whose mental health is improved by working from home, by finding the percentage of our remotely working survey takers who said working from home improves their mental health and then finding that proportion of the number of Brits who work from home.
Legal & General, L&G, L&G – EVERY DAY MATTERS and the Legal & General Logo are registered trade marks of Legal & General Group PLC and are used by Fairmead Insurance Limited under licence. Legal & General Group PLC has no responsibility for the products of Fairmead Insurance Limited or the servicing of those products. This policy is underwritten by Fairmead Insurance Limited which is a member of the Liverpool Victoria General Insurance Group. Fairmead Insurance Limited is not a member of the Legal & General group of companies.
Fairmead Insurance Limited is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority, Financial Services Register number 202050. Registered in England and Wales Number 00423930. Registered office: 57 Ladymead, Guildford, Surrey, GU1 1DB.