Work-life Balance? Maybe in the West, Not in Israel

Israelis work longer hours than just about any other nation, yet ‘flex-time’ is a foreign concept here.

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Balance between work and family life.
Balance between work and family lifeCredit: Dreamstime

It’s tough to strike a balance between work and other demands in life, particularly for Israeli women. Nivi Naor’s situation is a case in point.

“When my elder daughter was born, I became self-employed so that it would be easier to balance family life and work,” recounts Naor, who works in the high-tech sector and is also a mother of two daughters. “Very quickly I discovered that as a self-employed person, I was earning very little, so because I had no other choice, I returned to a salaried position. My partner and I began taking shifts. When I was working full time, she worked part time and vice versa, yet still we didn’t manage to save,“ Nivi says. “Life seemed to involve forgoing something, either work or the girls.”

About a month ago, the couple moved to London, in part because they could have a somewhat more balanced life there. “Compared to 43 hours a week of work in Israel, in Britain it’s 37 hours,” she says. “In addition, the private kindergartens coordinate their schedules with the work hours of working families,” she says, adding that they are open year round and don’t shut down for vacations as is frequently the practice in Israel.

As of 2014, Israel is ranked sixth among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the grouping of the world’s developed countries, in the average number of hours worked per year. The average Israel worked 1,853 hours, compared to an OECD average of 1,770. In Western Europe the averages are even lower. In the Netherlands, for example, the average was 1,420 in 2014, and in Norway it was just two hours longer, while in Switzerland it was 1,568.

Balancing personal life and work is a dilemma characteristic of the Y Generation, those born in the 1980s and early 1990s. A study recently published by the Ernst and Young accounting firm says this is because the Y Generation wants it all. While it is clear to everyone that this balance is difficult for working parents to achieve, the situation for singles is not easy, either.

Naradine Freij.Credit: Rami Shllush

“I’m the only one at work who isn’t married and doesn’t have children, so they always expect more of me,” explains Naradine Freij, a 27-year-old women from the Galilee village of Reineh who works part time as an academic adviser at the Open University. “It’s easier for parents to say that their daughter is sick or that their son has a school play. It creates a situation in which the system expects me to be flexible because I’m single. At one time, I was available all the time, but at one point, I needed to stand up for myself and say that the fact that I don’t have children doesn’t mean that I need to be available 24 hours a day.”

The pressures from work harm time with family, she says. “Two years ago, I worked as a research assistant at the University of Haifa and as a program coordinator for Perach,” she explains, referring to a tutoring program, “and I was also a student at the same time. That year, I gave up my social life and opportunities to develop a relationship. I simply knew there was no point because I wouldn’t have to time to invest in the relationship,” she acknowledges. “I understood that if I wasn’t going to mentally collapse, I needed to free up time for myself.”

Brian Mosley, a 26-year-old student at an interdisciplinary program for outstanding students at Tel Aviv University, also decided to reduce his pace. “I worked full time at IBM for two years, 45 to 50 hours a week. I wanted to develop myself in other fields, but I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have the time,” he explains. “Now I am a university student and work just two days a week. When I finish my studies, I won’t want to return to work full time. Maybe the escape is to be self-employed,” he said. Mosley also mentioned that just because he doesn’t have children doesn’t mean he has no personal life, a personal life that is being trampled by his work hours. “The work culture needs to be changed,” he maintains. “Israelis love to come to the office and waste time,” he says.

The government steps in

The time may have come to change the situation. In May of last year, several Knesset members, including Dov Khenin of the Joint Arab List, proposed an amendment to the law on maximum working hours that would shorten the work week to 35 hours. Similar bills were submitted in the past by Khenin and by former Hadash MK Issam Makhoul.

Nivi Naor.Credit: WorldMate

“Israelis work more hours but nevertheless more families are joining the ranks of the poor,” Khenin says. “The amendment that we are proposing will contribute to the fight against unemployment. It will allow additional workers to be employed, employers will increase their workforces, and finally it will make it possible to devote more time to leisure and family.” Khenin is promoting another bill that would add an additional day of rest during the week, giving workers a long weekend. Such a step, he claims, will help make the Sabbath a day of leisure, culture and vacationing and also assist the religious population.

Flexible work for all employees

While the Israeli labor market does not show flexibility to workers, there are a number of arrangements in other countries designed to help workers balance work and leisure time. Entitlement to flexible working arrangements that loosen requirements to be at the office at a set time every day usually are related to employees’ personal and family situation and how long they have been at their place of employment. A report from the Knesset’s Research and Information Center summarizing the situation in other countries includes the following:

New Zealand is one of the countries that provides for flexible working arrangements by law. In 2007, the labor laws there were amended to include such a provision for all employees. The provisions include flexible working hours, working according to need, alternating weeks of work and vacation, working from home or from remote locations and gradual transition to retirement. They also include gradual transition back to work from maternity leave or other time off and alternating work places.

The right to flexible work conditions is not linked to one’s domestic situation and is available from the first day on the job without any limitation on the number of requests. And workers do not need to justify the reasons for their requests.

The Act of Flexible Working in the Netherlands came into effect on January 1 of this year. Holland has a relatively long-standing and broad social welfare policy that supports balancing work and personal life. Anyone who has worked at least 26 works at a specific employer can request the flexibility option from any employer with at least 10 employees, whether it is public or private.

The labor laws in Britain were amended in 2003 to add a provision on flexible working conditions that provides a range of options. They include part-time work, flexible working hours, annual work quotas, a shorter but more intense work week, gradual transition to retirement and working from home. The provisions are available to parents with responsibility for children under 16 or a disabled child under 18, as well as for employees caring for adults needing constant care. It, too, applies in the public and private sectors.

U.S. falling behind

Unlike Western European countries, the United States is lagging when it comes to flexible employment. There is no federal legislation regulating flexible employment options. Proposed legislation from 2008 and 2013 has not been passed. A White House document from 2014 addressed the issue and expressed a positive stance toward flexible workplace practices, which it said would contribute to the U.S. economy by improving working conditions, reducing traffic jams, providing a more efficient allocation of labor, possible increased productivity and an improvement in employees’ sense of well-being.

In San Francisco, the city council issued an order in October 2013 regarding workplace support for families that includes the right to ask for flexible working conditions. The order was issued for a number of reasons, including changes in the workplace and an increase in the number of working women; an increase in households in which both spouses work; rising strain on public transportation; and a larger number of workers from the suburbs and even further afield who work in the city center. Also cited was the growth in the number of single-parent families, the high cost of child-rearing and the growing number of hours that employers expect from their workers.

Among the arrangements available are flexible hours and days of work. The order applies to full- and part-time employees, working parents and those with relatives with serious medical conditions.

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