Love vs Labour: How work is damaging our relationships

When Tracy’s boss called her at 3am one morning to ask her to come in for a shift that day, she knew something had to change.

Juggling her job at a leading supermarket with caring for her daughter, who has autism, was difficult enough but it didn’t help when they expected her to put work before caring responsibilities.  “My husband worked in the same supermarket and it was often difficult for us to get the time off we needed to attend Nicola’s hospital appointments or attend school plays” Tracy said.  “We even started to bicker between ourselves about who should take time off and risk losing their job.”

Tracy’s situation isn’t an isolated one either.  A new study, Labour of Love or Love vs Labour, published today by Relate and Relationships Scotland, has found that 21% of employees say attending to care responsibilities is frowned upon at work. To add to this picture, one in three workers also say their boss thinks work should come before family life, and a third also say their employer thinks the ideal employee should be available 24 hours a day. 

Evidence shows that employees struggling to balance work and family are more likely to become ill, perform less well and resign; but those satisfied with work and work-life balance are more likely to perform better and be more productive.

The solution seems obvious so why is it that many UK employers are still stuck in the dark ages, failing to offer the flexibility that their employees need and deserve? The charity study found that 27% of employees say they work longer hours than they would choose and this is damaging their physical or mental wellbeing. But the truth is that working longer hours doesn’t lead to increased productivity.  In fact, the highest productivity in the UK was in 1974 when the Government introduced a temporary three day working week in response to the Oil Crisis and the threat of a strike by the National Union of Mineworkers.

When it comes to working long hours, there are no real winners but relationships at home are perhaps the biggest losers of all.  Let’s face it – it’s difficult to spend quality time with your children or partner if you’re constantly checking emails. And although you may be working non-stop to provide for your family, the irony is that they could end up resenting you for the time spent away. To add to this, when you are exhausted it can mean you are more short tempered and sex is often off the table. It’s perhaps not surprising then that relationship counsellors believe work-life balance is the third biggest strain on couple relationships (after affairs and not understanding each other, and ahead of money worries and different sex drives).

Tracy was able to achieve a healthier work life balance in the end, but only through switching jobs.  “Now I work as a Teaching Assistant for Devon County Council and they are extremely supportive.  They really understand the importance of family and relationships and allow me to swap my days around when I need any time off”, she says. “My relationship with my husband is much stronger because work isn’t placing that added strain on our relationship.”

But it shouldn’t be that employees have to switch jobs to achieve a better work life balance and save their relationships. Relate and Relationships Scotland are calling for employers to take more responsibility for the pressure that stress and lack of work-life balance can put on relationships at home. Many employers are getting better at offering flexible working but the future should be one where all employers offer it by default. Flexible working is not a silver bullet of course but it would go a long way towards improving our work life balance, relationships and overall wellbeing.

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