Work/Life Imbalance Steals Parenting Time

13/11/2011 19:02 GMT | Updated 12/01/2012 10:12 GMT

An industrial dispute in Britain's universities has shown that we work more than our working contracts stipulate - often at levels that breach the government's own limits - and this is disrupting our home lives.

40,000 researchers, lecturers and other university staff are enmeshed in a dispute over their pensions.

Members of the University and College Union (UCU), which represents employees at 67 of the older universities, have been keeping to their contracted hours since 10 October. To reiterate: these workers are working only the hours stipulated in their contract.

The legal working limit set by the government is 48 hours a week. Workers are free to work longer hours but have to stipulate in writing that they are opting out of this working-time limit.

Sticking to their contracted hours shows that many of these workers had been regularly working more than the legal limit just to keep up.

Kathy Romer, an astrophysics lecturer at the University of Sussex, was working around 55 hours a week before the dispute began, and regularly worked at weekends.

Now, she says: "I am able to take my kids out on Saturday without having to worry about work. I don't feel like I am drowning, and feel in control of my life for the first time in a while."

Sally Hunt, UCU's general secretary, said: "This is clear evidence that the sector has been relying on the goodwill of our members, and getting away with doing so for too long."

But is it likely that overwork is limited to workers of the UCU? Absolutely not.

Workers today are expected to work harder and longer, and those with families suffer the most. British parents feel guilty about the time they spend away from their kids, and often buy them presents in lieu of time spent with them, according to research from UNICEF.

Sticking to their contracted hours shows that employers do not adequately estimate the length of time it takes employees to do their job. It is now an unwritten rule that the working hours in a contract are a fiction.

As the economy takes another wobble, is it right that employees take up the slack for employers to keep them afloat? It may well be. But when times are good, is the benefit reciprocal: can employees work less? I don't think so.

Juggling a family with the pressures of work is one of the hardest things to get right, and many employees are making sacrifices that mean family life across Britain is suffering.