Balancing work-life balance

What on earth is this “work-life balance” the bureaucrats are working on? Doesn’t it presume work to be the antithesis of life? Sounds like more Labour social engineering.

And how does such social engineering enhance productivity growth, now the government’s No 1 economic management priority? Telling people work is not life is hardly likely to spur effort and innovation to make the workplace more productive.

And doesn’t it tell employers Labour is poised to lump on to them more minimum standards and regulations for wellness days, breast-feeding breaks and extra holidays?

No, actually. At least, so officials say. A report due this month (December) will try to make commonsense of this semantic conundrum for those not yet initiated into the arcana of modern workforce theory. A problem is that all alternative wordings for what they are trying to do are also misleading in one way or another.

The short explanation is that “work-life balance” is actually about making work a more acceptable and positive part of life — that is, about injecting more “life” into “work”.

You can view this two ways.

One way is from a traditional social democratic angle: that governments exist to make life better for people. They tax and regulate to do that. From this perspective, the project is likely to raise employers’ hackles as do-gooding and so likely to fail, except in a minimalist sense.

The second route in is via economics. If social democratic ambitions for better education, social services and social assistance are to be met, GDP growth per capita must rise faster to generate higher tax revenues.

Faster productivity growth requires workplaces to perform better — not just by cutting costs, the 1990s elixir which left many workers deeply suspicious of anything labelled “productivity”, but by enlisting employees’ ideas and cooperation.

This is more likely, so the theory goes, if workplaces are more responsive to employees’ needs and ambitions and more flexible in treatment of employees.

More “life” in “work”, in other words, is likely to make workplaces more profitable and employees better off materially and not just happier.

So the argument runs.

But now answer this: how does a government get very small companies, operating hand-to-mouth, day-to-day, to buy into this without regulating them — as it did for holidays and holiday pay? To such an employer more flexibility for employees sounds like higher costs.

And how does a government get larger low-cost companies such as those in catering and cleaning to think enough of their workers to bother about flexibility? Does it specifically regulate such industries as in the recent legislation protecting such “vulnerable” workers in transfers of contract?

A pointer to the answer lies in an attempt to change the culture of the Labour Department.

For two decades, perhaps longer, the workplace has been a place the Labour Department regulates — or deregulates — or regulates again. Officials have seen “workplace reform” as changing and/or policing regulations.

Chief executive James Buwalda is trying to get his officials to think of workplace reform as improving the workplace for both employer and employee. If he succeeds, the Labour Department will become more central to government policymaking — the “nexus”, as one senior minister puts it, between social and economic policy.

In that context “work-life balance” takes on an iconic role at the core of the government’s forward programme beyond the next election.

Now turn the whole subject around and come in from the “life” side of the picture. How does a government get more “work” into “life” — get the man to do more child care when both parents are in paid work? This, too, is part of “work-life balance” and, some argue, integral to success of changes in the workplace.

United Future has the pat answer: encourage women to stay home and rear the children and allow income-splitting for tax purposes as an inducement and reward.

But doesn’t this run counter to the OECD’s exhortations to get more women into the workforce, especially given the shortage of labour which is now the economy’s main constraint?

Aha! There you have a rationale for “work life balance” to put to employers: make workplaces more flexible and women will be more likely to work in them. Hey presto: instant workforce.

And, incidentally, you are back at that nexus between economic and social policy. That is the grail this government is pursuing. After five years it has still not fully reshaped policy in its own image. Buwalda has a big job ahead of him.