There used to be a common phrase: ‘work-life balance’, used to describe the need to support employees so that they maintained a healthy balance of work and life. Originally born out of the difficulties experienced by working mums, the idea then extended to all employees. That is, before the ‘current economic climate’ threw a spanner in the works.

The recession has resulted in job cuts, which means for many the balance has swung heavily on the ‘life’ side. But it also means more hours for some of those left behind at work. Research shows a significant increase now in the number of employees either canceling their holidays or continuing work while on leave. The Trades Union Congress has warned that “employers are more reluctant to recruit new staff and so are working existing employees harder”. Some employees are even being asked to accept “five for four” style pay cuts when working 5 days a week, and this type of workaholism is bad for people, profits, and productivity.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina state that overwork is the greatest reducer of productivity, costing the US an estimation of over $150 billion in 2008 due to employee burnout, illness and stress that resulted in high absence rates, and low flexibility and motivation.

But there are suggestions as to how to deal with this kind of unbalance. Previous recessions have demonstrated that employee engagement is affected not by what companies do, but by the way in which they do them. Companies can slash their workforces and still remain the “Sunday Times Best Company to Work For” purely by following sensible and ethical HR practices.

There is also the question of technology. Though objects like BlackBerry’s were introduced to the workplace with the intention of allowing flexibility in terms of working hours and places, they have now disabled time out from work. HR needs to remind employees that technology can be turned ‘Off’.

Intelligent employers will appreciate that how they treat employees affects more than just their short-term survival. It also affects their long-term input, and their ability to face the outcomes of the recession.

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