EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Work–life balance

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Work–life balance is a term used to describe the level of prioritisation between an individual’s work and personal life. A good work–life balance is achieved when an individual’s right to a fulfilled life inside and outside paid work is accepted and respected as the norm – to the mutual benefit of the individual, business and society.

Work–life balance is a consistent theme in European Commission proposals on the future of European social policy that promote a shift away from a work–leisure dichotomy towards more complex patterns of time use. New working time patterns offer the possibility for new combinations of work, education and training, social responsibility and leisure in a more integrated life cycle, with associated measures going beyond traditional labour law rights to equal treatment in employment and social security. Such measures include rights and entitlements to training, caring responsibilities and community service, and the provision of incentives for workers to undertake these activities.

The European Quality of Life Surveys, conducted by Eurofound, provide comparisons between countries on issues relating to the employment situation, living and working conditions, family and community life, health and housing in 28 countries in Europe. In relation to the reconciliation of work and family life, the survey finds increasing support for more flexible working time arrangements. These include arrangements that would give women greater scope to develop family and career plans, as well as providing opportunities for men to reduce their formal working time in order to take on more family responsibilities. In addition, the European Company Surveys provide data on why and how companies make use of a broad variety of working time arrangements, such as full and part-time work, overtime, flexitime, shift work, phased and early retirement and childcare leave arrangements.

Following two rounds of consultations with the EU-level social partners, the European Commission issued in April 2017 a new proposal for a Directive on worklife balance for parents and carers. It states that the proposal will help to increase the labour market participation of women and women in management, which will help to stem the economic loss that this is causing to the European Union. It notes that the overall employment rate of women is still 11.6 percentage points lower than that of men and that 31.5% of working women work part time, compared with 8.2% of working men. Furthermore, just over 50% of women work full time, compared to 71.2% of men. It cites caring responsibilities as the reason for inactivity for almost 20% inactive women, while this is only the case for less than 2% of men.

The proposed Directive contains a number of legislative and non-legislative provisions. In terms of legislation, its main provisions are:

  • The introduction of paternity leave fathers/second parents will be able to take at least 10 working days of paternity leave around the time of birth of the child, compensated at a minimum at the level of sick pay.
  • The strengthening of parental leave by paying the 4-month period compensated at least at the level of sick pay and making it non-transferable from a parent to another. Parents will also have the right to request to take leave in a flexible way and the age of the child up to which parents can take leave will be increased from 8 to 12 years old.
  • The introduction of carers' leave for workers caring for seriously ill or dependent relatives. Working carers will be able to take 5 days per year, compensated at a minimum at the level of sick pay.
  • The extension of the right to request flexible working arrangements (reduced working hours, flexible working hours and flexibility in place of work) to all working parents of children up to 12 and carers with dependent relatives.

The proposal also contains a range of non-legislative measures to help Member States to achieve the goals of the Directive, including:

  • ensuring protection against discrimination and dismissal for parents (including pregnant women and workers coming back from a leave) and carers;
  • encouraging a gender-balanced use of family-related leaves and flexible working arrangements;
  • making better use of European funds to improve long-term and childcare services;
  • removing economic disincentives for second earners which prevent women from accessing the labour market or from working full time.

Eurofound has been carrying out new research in the area of worklife balance in recent years. A 2016 report from Eurofound on sustainable work throughout the life course looks at how to encourage more people to participate in the labour market and to continue to do so until an older age. It analyses national policies that help to achieve sustainable work in 10 EU Member States. 

The sixth European Working Conditions Survey overview report, published in November 2016, examines workers’ own assessment of their work–life balance and working time preferences and how they juggle their different roles as worker, family member and citizen.

Eurofound’s Foundation Focus on Work–life balance: Creating solutions for everyone, published in December 2016, draws on a wide range of recent work on work–life balance issues and factors that help or hinder workers in combining working with non-working life.

A new joint ILO-Eurofound report, Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work, published in February 2017, shows that the expanding use of digital technologies for working from home and elsewhere is rapidly transforming the traditional model of work. While it can improve work–life balance, research shows that it can also potentially result in longer working hours, higher work intensity and work–home interference.

Work–life balance will continue to be a significant research topic for Eurofound, including in the outputs from the 2016 European Quality of Life Survey from late 2017. 

 See also: childcare; homeworking; parental leave; part-time work; pregnancy and maternity; working time.

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