On the importance of getting the work-life balance right

It wasn&'t supposed to be like this. Karl Marx predicted that in the rationally organised economy of the future we would be able to &"hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind&". As recently as the 1960s, that didn&'t seem so far-fetched.
Herman Kahn - the futurologist who was supposed to have been the inspiration for Dr Strangelove - prophesied in 1976 that by the year 2000, Americans would be working an average of 20 hours a week. The challenge for developed societies, he suggested, would be to find ways to occupy all the extra leisure time we&'d be saddled with as a result of time-saving technological advances.
Of course, it hasn&'t worked out that way. Between 1990 and 2000 the average American&'s annual working hours increased from 1,942 to 1,978 - almost an extra week. The Japanese even have a word - karoshi - to describe death from overwork. In the UK, too, we have a problem with work-life balance. ­According to Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development research, three out of four people say they work &"very hard&". One in three partners of people who work long hours say it&'s damaging their relationship. Commuters swap stories about the hours they are putting in, and we all know the working week is getting longer.
Except it isn&'t. Across the UK, the average working week actually fell from more than 50 hours a week a century ago to 35 hours by the end of the 1970s. And although there was a slight increase in working hours in the 1980s and &'90s, since 1998 it has fallen again by more than an hour, to an average of 37.34 hours. As with any average, this masks some pretty extreme variations. One in four workers clocks up more than 45 hours a week on average, with white-collar and managerial staff among the worst offenders.
And even if the number of hours we work isn&'t going up, perhaps the intensity of work is. Each new technological advance has speeded up the rate of communication and the pace of work. How many people do you know who leave their phones on 24 hours a day and take their Blackberries on holiday with them?
Job satisfaction has been falling steadily over the past decade, and a quarter of those people who work very long hours - 48 or more a week - said it was damaging their health.
So, finding a healthy work-life balance is important on an individual level, but also for the organi­sations we work for and society as a whole. In this column, I plan to look at the small steps we can all take to start to make a difference.

Steve Crabb is editor of People ­Management
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Steve crabb