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All work and no play

Getting that work-life balance right

It’s official: we’re a nation of worker-spenders. We work hard and we spend hard. And although we don’t necessarily enjoy the work we do, we work because we need to pay those bills! A recent UK newspaper survey has found that nearly eight in ten people who work would rather continue to toil than spend less time at work for less money.

Of these, five in ten need to work because they crave the cash and only three in ten work because they enjoy their job.*

(*source: The Times, 22 November 2004)

It seems to me that our work-life balance is tipped heavily in favour of the necessities of work, leaving little time for family, friends or frolics. The same survey has revealed that one in five fathers feels anxious about not spending enough time with their children, and one in every two people has to use their holiday time to do mundane household chores instead of having fun.

Not being able to enjoy our hols or our kids is a sorry state of affairs. But the good news is that, even if you don’t want to or can’t afford to give up that job, there are ways you can weight your work-life balance to maximize your free time.

One of the most effective, and simplest, ways to make a start is to turn off that TV or, better still, unplug it and store it up in the loft in a big cardboard box. Close the loft door firmly, and take a deep telly-free breath! Each one of us spends up to 10 hours a week in front of the small screen, most likely learning very little and doing even less other than feeling bad about wasting so much time. So try not to vegetate your free time away. Banish the box and use those extra hours to plan a great day out this weekend, to join a club or to take up a new sport (for ideas, see other articles in this magazine). After a TV-free week or two, you won’t even notice it’s gone!

Flexible working patterns
When it comes to work, too, simple strategies will help you spend more time doing what you want to do.

The UK government has taken steps to actively promote flexible working patterns, especially for people with young children. As of April 2003, if you have children under 6 years old you have the right to negotiate a degree of flexible working with your employer. Your employer has a legal obligation to consider any reasonable request, and can refuse only if there are clear business reasons for doing so.

Thanks to the wonders of e-mail and the internet, lots of jobs lend themselves to working from home for a part of the week. To make your case for flexible working arrangements – say, one day a week working at home – tell your employer about the benefits: you’ll be able to concentrate much more on your tasks in peace and quiet there’ll be fewer distractions since the phone won’t be constantly ringing you’ll be able to start work earlier and fresher because you’ll miss out on a weary commute.

I work for at least part of every day from my favourite desk at home, and I find there’s really nowhere more productive, or inspiring!

It’s in an employer’s interest to listen to your ideas: an understanding employer is more likely to retain valued staff, which in turn improves company morale and productivity, and enhances your boss’s reputation for fairness in the wider business community.

If your job doesn’t lend itself to working at home, there’s still a wide variety of strategies that might help you tip that work-life balance back into your favour. Ideas include:

Part-time working: opting to work fewer hours in total, if you can afford it.
Job share: two people share the responsibility for one full-time job, perhaps working half weeks or alternate weeks.
Staggered hours: varying your hours so that you can come in late or leave early on selected days.
Compressed working weeks: the same number of hours is worked over 4 days that used to be worked over 5 days. If both wage-earners in a family work four-day weeks, it should be possible to arrange the days off so that you only have to pay for childcare three days a week. Take care not to overdo it, though. Four days of hard slog every week can take its toll.

Flexitime: you work an agreed number of hours over an “accounting period” – usually 4 weeks – during which you are required to work during “core periods” of time essential to your business, but otherwise you can vary your start, finish and lunch hours to suit your domestic and other responsibilities.
Shift swapping: if you work shifts you could arrange a rota with colleagues so that everyone works a fair number of social and less-social hours and so that, if needs be, you can swap a shift with someone else.
Banking hours: working extra hours so that you earn time off in lieu in the future.

If you really want to ring the changes, you could always consider finding short-term stints of temporary work via employment agencies as and when it suits you, although temping and contract work does mean you miss out on many of the benefits and rights that full-time employees have.

Career breaks are also increasingly common, as an extension of maternity leave or to concentrate on parenting full-time. Housewives are even being supplanted by house-husbands – for a growing number of couples it makes complete sense for the man to concentrate on childcare if the woman is the higher earner.

Maternity leave – your rights
All pregnant employees, regardless of the length of time they’ve worked for a company, are entitled to 26 weeks’ ordinary maternity leave, provided that their employers are notified well in advance. If you are intending to go on maternity leave, you have to tell your employer when no later than the end of the 15th week before your baby is due. Maternity leave can start no earlier than the beginning of the 11th week before your baby’s due.

If you have worked continuously for your employer for 26 weeks by the beginning of the 14th week before your baby is due, you are also entitled to a further period of 26 weeks’ additional maternity leave after the ordinary maternity leave ends, making a total of 52 weeks’ leave. The second period of leave is almost certainly unpaid, though your employer is obliged to keep your job, or a similar job, open to you should you wish to return to it at the end of the 52 weeks.

For a comprehensive and up-to-date rundown on maternity leave, including the latest on what pay and benefits you are entitled to during your leave, see or log onto the Maternity Alliance website (information line 020 7588 8582).

Recruitment – finding a job after a career break
Taking a long break from work can make it hard to get back into the job market. A good, clearly typed cv, which emphasises relevant work experience and your particular strengths and skills, is essential. If you’re unsure how to set one out, most good bookshops stock self-help guides to writing the perfect cv. Avoid the “tombstone” cv, which starts with your age, marital status and qualifications. Employers want to know what you can do now, not what you did at school. Start with a short profile of yourself – a couple of sentences about your work experience and your career aims – then detail all your jobs with the skills you developed and your key achievements in each one.

If you can’t think how to account for time you’ve spent away from work, remember that parenting demands many skills (organisation, prioritising, budgeting etc) that are also useful in the workplace.

The next hurdle to leap involves finding a suitable vacancy, which can be hard especially if your previous work was very specialised. Newspapers, job centres and local noticeboards are good sources of job information, but now there’s a huge number of job agencies on the internet, many of which are specialists in particular skill areas. They’ll notify you by e-mail when a suitable vacancy appears. It might also be worth asking your previous employer in case an opening has appeared while you’ve been away. A reputable employment agency will help you find work, and may be able to guide you through the process of making an effective cv.

If you get an interview, you’ll need to brush up on your question-fielding technique. Ask a friend to give you some interview practice: awkward questions will force you to think hard about why you want that job. And don’t despair after your first, second or third rejection letter – it’s rare to land the first job you apply for, so be persistent!

Work-life tips for working mums and dads
It’s true that if you want something done, ask a busy person. They’ll do it quicker and more effectively than someone who’s got all day. Organised, tidy minds simply have more free space in them, helping to make the most of the day. Here’s some ideas to help you achieve this mindset.
Make lists: prioritise what you really need to do and do those things first. If my list contains any jobs that will take only about 2 minutes, I’ll do them immediately. With fewer tasks hanging over you, there’ll be more time to enjoy!

Be efficient at the office: with another list in hand you can rattle through those workday tasks and you’ll be surprised how quickly you get things done. Don’t be distracted – forego a coffee break until you’ve done that filing!

Be organized at home: if you’re tripping over toys and toppling piles of paper every time you turn round, it’s time to buy some storage boxes, files and labels. Chuck out anything that can be chucked, keep kitchen work surfaces and table clear, and encourage your children to tidy their things away – a “tidy-up time” routine will help here.

Relax and recharge: try and sit down for 10 minutes every hour or so. At work, take a “screen break” and rest your eyes. At home, curl up on the sofa, have a quiet cup of tea and refresh your mind.

Take the strain, especially at the weekends: parents need to give each other a break from time to time. Let your partner have an hour or two off while you look after the kids, but make sure they know it’s their turn to childmind next!

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