What's a 'work life balance' anyway?
20 March 2017 - Impact Hub

Guest blog by Chris Rolls

Impact Hub Islington is holding a series of events exploring what ‘good’ work means in the modern world. As a collective of businesses, social enterprises and freelancers driven by positive social impact, it makes sense that the first Hub of a now global network should ask this. It kicked off last week with a discussion titled ‘Where does work end and life begin?’, and posed a simple question: what’s a work life balance anyway?

But first, a bit of context. Today, Islington is the most densely populated and 24th most deprived local authority in England. At the same time, Tech City, London’s spiritual home to startups, straddles the boundaries between the boroughs of Hackney and Islington. Entrepreneurial culture, which is all about disrupting current markets and ways of doing business, represents the shifting sands of the way we work in the twenty-first century. According to StartUp Britain, 80 new businesses were created in the UK every hour in 2016.

Add to that a workforce which is increasingly self-employed UK freelancing has grown 14% in the past ten years — a trend that’s set to accelerate. The attractiveness of freelance, ‘portfolio’ or hybrid careers has been facilitated by two key trends: the growth in online platforms for freelancers to find work, and the flourishing of co-working spaces where boot-strappers benefit from social connection. Impact Hub Islington is a hotly relevant site for work-related debate.


The rise of factory manufacturing during the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was a step change for the role of work in people’s lives. Before that, people were generally paid for the goods or services they produced and, as a result, people had relative control over how much they worked. However, according to Dr Judy Stephenson (Research Fellow in Economic History, Wadham College, Oxford) seasonal variations created “supply-and-demand shocks”. If the Thames froze over, goods couldn’t be transported and the London economy pretty much came to a standstill.

With the arrival of steam and the advent of mechanisation, manufacturers started remunerating workers for the hours they worked rather than the amount they produced. This meant factory owners could calculate the fixed cost of their payroll more easily and maximise profits. Factory floors were not only hives of industry, though, they were forums for ideas and dissent. Workers who found themselves exploited as small cogs in vast machines couldn’t be prevented from talking and organising. With the boom in manufacturing, trade unions were born. It was only the threat of industrial action, which forced capitalistic shareholders to consider the wellbeing of their workers.

Early pioneers in enabling ‘good’ work included the Quaker chocolate dynasties in the UK, who advocated cocoa as an alternative to alcohol and ploughed their profits into improving the conditions of their employees. The likes of Cadbury, Bournville and Rowntree not only built towns with affordable housing, they also provided libraries and childcare provision. (Alas, no pub.)

The reality of life for the mass of workers in 19th century Britain, however, was not far from indentured servitude. When welshman Robert Owen inherited a cotton mill in Lanark, Scotland, he was appalled to find children as young as five working 10 to 12 hour shifts. He pushed the working age to 10 years and instated an 8 hour work day. He also became a pioneering reformer for working conditions. It was in 1866, that the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) promoted the idea of an 8-hour day further, and progressives soon spread the model across the globe.

In the UK, the idea of a balance between ‘work’ and ‘life’ wasn’t discussed until the 1970s . At that point, ‘life’ meant the domestic demands of running a home and rearing a family rather than leisure time. By the 1980s, however, the UK economy began to pick up, fuelled by rising house prices, tax cuts, lower interest rates and high confidence. Britons found themselves caught in a boom-bust cycle of prosperity, which saw them working long hours and suffering from high levels of stress. Hard work and overtime became a badge of honour and lunch was for ‘wimps’. So began an era of burn out and executive stress.

In 1993, The EU introduced the Working Time Directive, which capped working hours at 48. Today, the Tory government is keen to scrap the directive, saying it ‘holds back’ certain professions such as young medics, who are ‘prevented’ from gaining the necessary training. So what kind of vision of ‘good’ work are we aspiring to now?

Here are my thoughts on three aspects the conversation at Impact Hub Islington touched on. I should point out that what follows are my own highly selective thoughts and reflections — and ones that don’t necessarily reflect those of the participants.


The nature of work has been revolutionised, of course, by technology which has reached its tentacles firmly into all areas of our lives. With email and smartphones we are constantly available — if we allow ourselves — and some employers take it for granted that work will be done outside of office hours.

This hurricane of information and to-dos has a huge psychological and emotional impact on us, as Professor Gail Kinman from the University of Bedfordshire pointed out. Without necessarily being aware of our dopamine-dependence on connectivity and notifications, we are challenged to be fully present with our loved ones and friends. Being less present has a direct knock-on effect on our ability to empathise.

In a recent Credit Suisse interview titled “We are in attentional disarray”, the sociologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle has this to say: when we can put our attention anywhere, we take our attention off each other. The ability to be alone is important in the development of the capacity both of self-reflection and of empathy. We are so focused on being heard that we have more difficulty listening to others.” The point being that connectivity doesn’t necessarily mean connection. Young people, who place huge importance on being connected with their tribe via social media, are particularly vulnerable in this respect, since they’re less likely to have developed self-regulation when it comes to online activity.

This made me reflect that technology is not only changing access to work, it’s having a direct effect on our cognitive behaviour. The very structure of digital information systems is hard wiring us perform in certain ways. More machine-like ones, in short. The author Nicholas Carr makes precisely this point in his 2011 book The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. “Our brains have been shaped to adapt to the new way of processing information. Most of us would probably agree that the benefits outweigh the costs, but we may want to stop and think about the true magnitude of that cost.” Technology literally shapes the way our brains work — our ‘neuro-plasticity.’

Finally, technology has facilitated the spread of globalisation, which means that different markets in different time zones are now intimately connected. Working hours are flexing and extending to facilitate international and inter-continental business.


Work has deep roots into our sense of identity, self-worth and esteem. It’s the reason that the third most popular question we ask strangers (after ‘what’s your name?’ and ‘where do you come from?’) is ‘what do you do?’ Like it or not, what someone ‘does’ acts as an index of their social value and status for many of us. It tells us about their likely income, skill set and relative position on the social scale. We also tend to measure ourselves in relation to other people’s careers. As social creatures, we are programmed to make those comparisons.

This raises a pertinent question about ‘work life balance’. Is the separation even relevant? Shouldn’t we rather be talking about ‘work life integration’? It could be argued that entrepreneurial culture has created something of a paradox here. On the one hand, it celebrates ‘smart work’ — optimising systems so that least effort creates maximum profit and/or social impact; whilst at the same time fetishising it — celebrating the all-nighter. A recent ad run by the outsourcing service Fiverr was widely attacked by online communities for its glorification of the what’s become known as ‘gig culture’. “Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might just be a doer,” runs its strapline.

It’s no wonder that 24/7 connection to the matrix has led to high levels of stress and burnout. And no wonder that ‘mindfulness’, the practice of unplugging from distractions and stimulants, has seen a massive rise in popularity. If we form our identities and self-worth through work, what happens when we inevitably stop? Are we able to connect with our values at a deeper level? Work-related stress has long been connected to the increase in coronary heart disease, alcohol and substance abuse. The evening bottle of wine has become an surrogate for much-needed recovery.


The good news is that there are plenty of progressive organisations out there pioneering healthy work place practices. Isabella Pourtaheri, People & Culture Manager at Maxus Global highlighted the fact that, to stay afloat in a volatile economy, many businesses know they have to create a culture which is as pleasant to be in as it is productive. Generous policies towards maternity and paternity leave, gym memberships, paid leave to work on passion projects and sick leave for employees with poorly children are some examples of policies which have been adopted. More radical ones include things like employee ownership of the company, consensus-based decision-making and co-op style structures. Needless to say, this is a huge field with much to explore.


A.I. robots are set to take over 6% of all U.S. jobs by 2021 according to market research company Forrester. The future of work debate is more likely to be a discussion about the future role of work in our lives and its shaping of social relations. With robots doing more routine and drudge work, are we are really going to work less? Another stat doing the rounds: 65% of current students will be employed in jobs that don’t even exist yet. More probably and likely, work won’t decrease — it’ll just evolve. We’ll face new challenges in our ongoing struggle to keep our work human.

The Impact Hub discussion generated a lot of passionate debate, and showed that the future of good work is clearly a subject affecting us all. As I mentioned, the above précis is a highly personal take, touching just a few of the topics that provoked so many insights. Impact Hub hopes this discussion and others like it will be part of an ongoing conversation, and welcomes contributions and feedback from anyone interested in this complex boundary between life and work.

With special thanks to the panelists in the debate ‘Where does work end and life begin?’:

Dr Judy Stephenson, Research Fellow in Economic History, Wadham College, Oxford; Prof Gail Kinman, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology, University of Bedfordshire and Isabella Pourtaheri, People & Culture Manager, Maxus Global. The discussion was chaired by William Higham, a consumer futurist and founder of The Next Big Thing. Personal thanks also to Impact Hub members and to Julia Oertli.

Originally published on Medium