Work-life balance policies… ‘What about me?’

By Krystal Wilkinson, Manchester Metropolitan University

Photo of Krystal Wilkinson.I was asked to write this piece after the first academic paper[i] published from my PhD research was nominated for The Moss Kanter Award for Excellence in Work-Family research – one of 15 shortlisted from 2,500 articles internationally published in 2017.  Why the interest in this paper?  Because it identifies and explores a set of work-life balance issues that are faced by a large (and growing) proportion of the workforce, who are seemingly overlooked in many current organisational policies and provisions – those who live alone and don’t have children.  Statistics reveal that within the UK working-age population, 3.9 million people live alone[ii], a number that has increased fourfold since 1970, whilst the number of multi-adult households has remained largely unchanged[iii].

The term ‘work-life balance’ has been heralded as a progression from previous focus on ‘work-family balance’ or ‘family friendly’ policies and provisions – something that is more inclusive to the needs of all employees.  In 2014, there was also legislative progression – with the ‘right to request flexible working’ in the UK being extended to cover all employees, as opposed to just parents and carers.  Has this change in terminology and legislative cover been matched by a change in cultures and practice however?  Are employers aware of the specific work-life balance challenges that might be experienced by different demographic groups within their workforce?  From my interview-based research with 36 childless solo-living managers and professionals, aged 24-44, it seems not. 

So what are the work-life challenges faced by this group?  Despite significant heterogeneity in the sample – in terms of occupation and sector; attitudes towards work, non-work activities and living alone; relationship histories; and intentions for the future – a number of recurring themes emerged in the interviews when it came to work-life balance.

The main challenge related to the assumptions of others about work and non-work time.  Participants suggested inaccurate assumptions were made in the workplace about their non-work time: that their time was solely leisure based; that it was less important than it was for those with family care responsibilities; and that no flexibility in work schedules would be needed.  The participants felt these assumptions were wrong.  Many felt they actually had less leisure time than those who lived with a partner, though not necessarily those with children, as there was no one at home to share the domestic workload.  Their non-work time was felt to be extremely important, with a key issue being the cultivation of lasting and meaningful relationships.  The importance of friends was repeatedly cited, these often being a primary source of social support, and yet friendships were said to require a time and energy investment which was difficult when work schedules were demanding, or where work had required relocation.  Solicitor Grace commented:

‘It’s the thought process of actually thinking of things where you might meet people who have got a common interest – because people work long hours, especially in your 30s… you’ve got to really think about where am I going to meet these people that I’m going to really like, and really focus down on your hobbies and that type of thing. And really put a lot of energy into those people when you actually meet them.’

Alongside the cultivation of friendships, there was also the issue of dating.  Whilst currently solo-living (and predominantly single), most of the participants desired future cohabitation and family.  It was noted that dating was a time-consuming process however, with a limited return-on-investment – in terms of the likelihood of it resulting in a successful long-term relationship.  Individuals found it hard to prioritise dating when they worked long hours and had unpredictable finish times.  The consequences of not being able to invest in dating were not insignificant however, especially for some of the women in their late 30s/early 40s.  Time pressures for these women were not just about daily schedules, but about life-course stages and fertility concerns beyond their immediate control.  This led to considerable work-life stress and anxiety.  HR Manager Charlie described it as a ‘Catch-22’ situation, in that she worked long hours, and then had to attend to domestic tasks, meaning that she found it hard to find time to meet someone.  Because she wasn’t dating much, however, there was little hope of her solo-living status changing, or her being able to start a family, and thus feeling able to work less.

A related issue we can see from Charlie’s case is the perceived legitimacy of solo-living workers’ non-work time.  Participants noted how only family-based requirements were seen to be legitimate reasons for individuals to divert their time and energy away from work.  Not only did they feel unable to ask for any flexibility in their schedules to accommodate personal activities, they felt uneasy in refusing extra hours or significant work travel - as they didn’t feel they had an adequate ‘excuse’.

Other challenges included a lack of financial support (having sole financial responsibility for their mortgage/rent) and increased vulnerability in relation to disappointments at work.  As work was presented as a primary source of identity for many of the participants, any knocks experienced in the workplace were taken to heart, which was exacerbated by having no one at home to talk things over with.  This often pushed individuals to work longer and harder to avoid such knocks.  Marketing Manager Jenny commented:

‘My life kind of revolves around work, you know… because I haven’t got that many other distractions… You get a lot of criticism [in the job] if things aren’t happening, and for someone like myself… you feel that criticism quite hard. So you’d rather put in the extra hours to try to avoid it – because you want to feel like you’re doing a good job – because if you don’t get that kind of sense of achievement from your work then that’s quite hard isn’t it.’

In order for work-life balance initiatives to truly cater for all, we urge employers to review policy provisions in their organisations, and more importantly foster a culture where the non-work needs of all employees are recognised and supported.  Not only will this help those, like the solo-living managers and professionals in the sample, who are currently struggling with their work-life balance, but it will also make flexibility and balance more normative.  If everyone is devoting appropriate time and energy to their lives outside of work as well as to work itself, then hopefully there would be less concern from working parents that their use of work-life balance provisions might negatively impact on perceptions of their performance and commitment, and on their career development.  That’s a win-win in our book.

[i] Wilkinson, K., Tomlinson, J. and Gardiner, J. (2017) ‘Exploring the work-life challenges and dilemmas faced by managers and professionals who live alone’, Work, Employment & Society, 31(4), 640-656

[ii] Statista, UK Statistics portal:

[iii] Palmer G (2006) Single Person Households: Issues that JRF should be Thinking About. York: New Policy Institute, Joseph Rowntree Foundation.