Photo: carrie-ann-nelson via flickr
Sheela was doing well in her job. She had an eight-hour workday, great friends, a supportive family, good health, and she was paid well. Everyone around her thought she was happy and lived an ideal life.But Sheela’s life was actually a mess. Her overly aggressive boss thought nothing of shouting at her in front of her colleagues.
Though Sheela was a good performer, she was constantly anxious about the next time her supervisor would berate her. Though she was expected to work eight-hour days, her boss would call her at any time of the day or night.
Sheela began to dread hearing her mobile phone ring and was so worried all the time that she couldn’t even sleep. She fretted that her colleagues and friends would lose respect for her, and she lost so much confidence that she couldn’t handle even the simplest of social interactions. Sheela began to spend less time with her friends and family, where she would have to put up a brave face, and instead devoted more hours to work, where she could worry freely, obsessing over every detail of her job to the point of compulsiveness.
By most traditional measures of work-life balance, Sheela was doing quite well. She was handsomely compensated for an eight-hour workday, and she appeared to have enough free time to balance her career and personal life. But in reality, Sheela was struggling. What’s more, her frustrations would not be picked up by conventional measures of wellbeing, because those measures don’t take into account the quality of people’s experiences, nor do they incorporate people’s own evaluations of their lives. Instead, those measures rely on factors like income and number of hours worked, under the assumption that these factors determine the quality of people’s lives.
Beyond work-life balance
When the idea of work-life balance was first introduced, it was a revolutionary concept. In the 18thand 19th centuries, the Industrial Revolution and its resulting shift to manufacturing work made it possible for employers to require workers to labour longer hours than ever before in human history. In some industries, people toiled 14 to 16 hours a day, six to seven days a week.
As researchers began to study the impact that these long hours had on stress levels, health, and family life, the idea of work-life balance gained currency, and many countries began to legislate limits to the workweek. Most developed nations now mandate 40-46 working hours per week, with a minimum of two weeks per year of holiday/vacation.
The concept of work-life balance has been instrumental in influencing these changes and bringing about an improvement in the quality of life that is assumed to accompany shorter working hours. But the concept is useful only up to a point. Globalization has undermined the relevance of reducing worker hours to achieve work-life balance and has revealed limitations; the most significant is that at some point, limiting hours further is just not sustainable.
France has mandated a 35-hour workweek, for example. But what can the country do next? The workweek can’t be reduced indefinitely, as this has implications for a country’s economic viability and competitiveness. In a globalized world, if workers in one country are unwilling to work for economically viable hours, then businesses will migrate to a country where they are willing to do so. In countries such as India and Pakistan, workers are motivated to work 10- to 12-hour workdays — and this is unlikely to change soon due to the large number of workers willing to do so to move up the economic ladder.
Another problem with the concept of work-life balance is that it takes the number of working hours into account but not the quality of the working experience. A person may spend 35 hours a week at work, but if that worker, like Sheela, has an abrasive manager or is in a highly stressful job or one that is not suited to her natural talents, then those manageable work hours are unlikely to enhance her quality of life. Conversely, a person may choose to work long hours because it allows her to progress in her career or to build a social system at work.
Thus, the assumption that reduced hours at work lead to an improvement in personal life is too narrow, and probably faulty. Other factors, such as social support, health, safety, and job fit, contribute greatly to the quality of a person’s life. Since the concept of work-life balance doesn’t take into account these significant factors, it does not provide direction as to how people can actually improve the quality of their lives, except for reducing the hours spent at work. As such, it is not actionable.
How we think about and experience our lives
A more comprehensive concept — one that’s more appropriate for the 21st-century economy — is that of wellbeing, which includes factors that contribute to our experiences and our perception of our lives. Until recently, wellbeing has been seen as an esoteric concept that is difficult to define and quantify. It is most commonly understood as relating to wealth or health, perhaps because of the ease with which these things can be measured.
One reason that wellbeing has been difficult to define is that it means different things to different people depending on what they consider important. To one person, it may mean prosperity or wealth; to another, it may mean values or community involvement or the realisation of one’s potential. This is why wellbeing should be measured at the individual level, though it may be aggregated for organisations, communities, and nations. And any measure of wellbeing must be broad enough to incorporate an individual’s own choices and purpose in life while being specific enough to be compared and aggregated to facilitate action that can improve it.
Gallup has developed a wellbeing metric that includes the five key elements of wellbeing: Career, Social, Financial, Physical, and Community. These five distinct factors emerged from research that Gallup conducted across countries, languages, and vastly different life situations. Because these elements of wellbeing are universal, they can be measured and reported on for individuals, organisations, cities, countries, and regions around the world.
Because Gallup’s wellbeing assessment measures these elements individually in addition to yielding an overall score, it is actionable: The assessment gives individuals, organisations, cities, and countries the ability to manage wellbeing by undertaking actions to improve it. If an individual has relatively low Social Wellbeing, for example, she would do well to focus her efforts on improving interpersonal relationships with friends and family.
This can be managed over time. As her Social Wellbeing increases, she may choose to concentrate on Career Wellbeing, for instance, or choose to address both elements by spending time socializing with colleagues and making friends at work. In this way, wellbeing can be measured and managed comprehensively at the individual, as well as government, state, city, or corporate levels, by taking its various components and their interactions into account.
Conventional metrics such as employment status, income, educational level, hours worked, and women’s participation in the workforce are necessary to understand an economy, but they are insufficient when it comes to understanding and evaluating overall life satisfaction. Unless we begin to use a metric of a life well-lived — as measured by one’s own experiences and evaluation — people like Sheela will continue to be under the radar, aware that something is amiss, but without an idea why or what to do about it.
The Five Essential Elements of WellbeingFor more than 50 years, Gallup scientists have been exploring the demands of a life well-lived. More recently, in partnership with leading economists, psychologists, and other acclaimed scientists, Gallup has uncovered the common elements of wellbeing that transcend countries and cultures. This research revealed the universal elements of wellbeing that differentiate a thriving life from one spent suffering. They represent five broad categories that are essential to most people:
- Career Wellbeing: how you occupy your time — or simply liking what you do every day
- Social Wellbeing: having strong relationships and love in your life
- Financial Wellbeing: effectively managing your economic life
- Physical Wellbeing: having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis
- Community Wellbeing: the sense of engagement you have with the area where you live
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