Hartley Dean and Alice Coulter
Published November 2006
‘Work-life balance’ generally refers to how people may combine paid employment with family responsibilities. The UK government’s attempts to promote work-life balance are connected to wider concerns to maximise labour-force participation and include policies on tax credits, child care and employment rights. Employers favour work-life balance if it promotes the flexibility of labour supply and enables them to retain valued staff. There are concerns about the extent to which work-life balance policies benefit lower-income groups. This paper reports findings from a study, based on in-depth interviews with 42 economically active parents from a low-income neighbourhood. Participants supported the idea of work-life balance, but many found it difficult to achieve. Stress and long hours are unavoidable in some jobs, or else income and prospects must be forgone in order to obtain ‘family-friendly’ working conditions. Employment rights are poorly understood. Standards of management at work are inconsistent. Pay levels are insufficient and, though benefits/tax credits help, they are complex and badly administered. Childcare provision is available, but quality and access is uneven. Participants had mixed views as to the efficacy of support and services available in the neighbourhood. Participants offered different accounts of their experiences depending upon whether they were having to put their work first or family life first, and whether they felt ambivalent or content about this. The clearest finding was that participants tended to be fundamentally disempowered - by the unpredictability of the labour market, the dominance of a ‘business case’ rationale, their lack of confidence in childcare provision and a lack of belief in their employment and benefit rights.