Has Covid permanently altered our work-life balance?

Emma Revell

July 16, 2021

Have you been putting off a summer holiday this year, unsure whether you’ll get abroad or struggle to find the only Cornwall B&B that still has availability for August?

You’re not alone. A Opinium poll on behalf of the Rail Delivery Group surveyed over 4000 UK adults and found that, on average, working Brits skipped four days on annual leave last year, with an astonishing 1 in 10 people leaving a fortnight or more unused.

Day to day, the survey also found just under half of working adults have worked additional hours during the pandemic and that 40 per cent of those who had said they were feeling burnt out.

The commissioners of this polling don’t seek labour market reform, their purpose is to encourage workers to take some much-needed time off and explore the country using Britain’s railways, but it’s easy to predict how the results will be seized upon by those who want to push for more regulation.

Back in January MEPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of an EU-wide ‘right to disconnect’, the TUC has long advocated for the idea, and last month the Prospect union urged government ministers to consider such a ‘right’ for UK workers, claiming that “setting rules about the boundaries for remote or hybrid working would make a big difference in helping people switch off and recharge”.

It is too early to tell what changes the pandemic has brought to the relationship between employer and employee but it’s fair to say over the last eighteen months the balance has shifted. Workers who have been lucky enough to keep their jobs and shift to home working may have put in additional hours for a number of reasons. Perhaps boredom, why stop working if you have nothing else to go on to after work. Perhaps nervousness about their job security or a kind of ‘presenteeism’ even when it hasn’t been possible to be physically present. For some they may even have found themselves more productive at home and genuinely enjoyed the increase in output they’ve been able to achieve. But as nice as it sounds, the idea that employees should have a legal right not to be disturbed on a Sunday will have consequences.

Homeworking has brought advantages for many and if businesses are restricted or banned from a flexible working arrangement with their staff, they will want to maximise the time they are allowed to contact them. No more long lunches, clocking on five minutes late, or nipping out of the office for that third Pret coffee. Every minute will be accounted for.

The idea also lends itself to structured roles in heavily regimented organisations. Teachers, civil servants, and local government probably already have a pretty stagnant timetable, but flexibility and being reactive is essential for many small businesses, start ups, and those in creative industries.

As the economy opens up and the furlough scheme winds down, there is likely to be a significant churn in the labour market. The ONS recorded a 24 per cent increase in job vacancies in March-May 2021, compared to the previous quarter, and the total number of vacancies has almost returned to pre-pandemic levels. Employees who feel ‘burnt out’ or who have re-prioritised during the pandemic may well be thinking now is a good time to consider a change of job. If this is the case, potential new recruits are likely to be more discerning about their next career move, looking beyond the salary and weighing up additional benefits, flexible working, and other non-salary conditions. A savvy and motivated workplace will push employers to adapt in order to continue to attract the best talent, working as the market should.


Written by Emma Revell

Emma Revell is a political commentator.

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