work-life balance

Shorter Workweeks & Workdays Would Help Us All Find Balance

Mature businesswoman working in her office, taking notes and using laptop. In front of her, on the table, is a coffee. She is focused on her work.

“Good luck with your work, Mama,” my toddler daughter says to me as I turn on my computer and sit down in my home office. My heart breaks a little, watching her and my wife head off to go swimming, leaving me behind with my piles of work.

I feel that I’m missing out. I know this is the lament of many working parents, and even of people who don’t have children but who might like more time to spend with their friends or relatives, or relaxing taking in culture, or volunteering. We’re all missing out. No one has enough time.

But since this is an issue that affects us all, I wonder why society isn’t changing. Why are people still expected to work 8+ hours a day, five days a week? Why can’t employers be more flexible? Why can’t managers recognize that employees work better if they’re happier and more rested?

And while I’m at it, why are school days so long? Who decided that children should be in school for 6-8 hours a day, 5 days a week? Learning is important, obviously, but there are lots of ways to learn. So many young people look utterly exhausted by mid-afternoon, and then they are sent home with more homework to do.

What happened to playing and just being? I dread my daughter starting full-time education when she turns 4, because though she’ll find it stimulating, I worry she won’t have enough time to run around and be self-directed. Little kids aren’t meant to sit still, memorizing facts.

Shorter hours at work and/or school, and fewer days a week at a desk would, I believe, make most people feel better mentally and physically. We’d be more energized when it was time to work. We’d get more time with our loved ones. Two-day weekends go by so quickly and though we want to mostly do fun activities, there are also all those practical chores that simply don’t get done during the week.

Some companies and institutions in Sweden recently ran an experiment where staff worked six hours a day. They got the same salaries, and they found that they had more time for their friends, family, and hobbies, and were therefore more enthusiastic and harder-working when at their jobs. Meanwhile, extra staff often had to be hired to cover the extra work, which meant more people were employed. While not all these places are continuing with shorter hours–generally due to financial reasons–there’s a lesson to learn here.

Just as we look back at previous generations and feel shocked by some of those old-school parenting practices (spanking, sending kids to work, feeding babies alcohol, etc.), I suspect our children will look at us and wonder why we prioritized our jobs over our families and ourselves. Work can be fulfilling and it’s necessary to keep society functioning, but having a child has made me realize that it isn’t everything.

But since the workday isn’t really changing at the moment, I’m having to change myself. Sometimes I’m lucky to be flexible enough to attend my daughter’s swimming class during the day, but then that means I have to make up that work, usually by getting up in the middle of the night (sure, I’m exhausted, but it’s amazing how much you can get done in the small hours, when no one is replying to emails or knocking on your office door).

Sometimes I have to be strict with myself and when I’ve put in a solid workday, I just stop what I’m doing and shut my computer down, though pre-child I would have continued working through the evening and night. Sometimes I ask others for advice, but often they seem as confused and busy and guilty as I do.

We all do the best we can, but so many of us feel like we’re losing precious time with our children, our parents, our friends, and with ourselves. Surely we need a drastic change of some kind. Just imagine what our lives would be like with three-day weekends every other weekend, or shorter days, and it’s enough to make your heart ache with longing.

My daughter sees me typing and says, “Mama’s working!” And it’s true that I do have to work. But there are times when I have learned to say, “No, I’m done working for the day. Now we can play together.”

I just wish there were more of those times.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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