Is work-life conflict affecting your employee wellbeing?

Many of us get a lot of our wellbeing from work.  Doing difficult important things with others is highly rewarding.  We see many people have found work a good coping mechanism during the pandemic.  We know that high quality jobs lead to sustained personal wellbeing and better organisational performance. These jobs are characterised, among other things, by the right level of intensity while still enabling a good work-life balance. 

After interesting work and good relationships with colleagues and customers, Work-life balance is probably the strongest workplace driver of subjective wellbeing after earnings. According to the 2017 World Happiness Report: “those who have a job that leaves them too tired to enjoy the non-work elements of their lives” or who “bring their job home” report systematically lower levels of subjective wellbeing even after controlling for their level of remuneration and the number of hours they work per week. Employers who  support work-life balance weigh both organisational and individual employee needs: for example, how long are you working? How is the time organised? And are expectations of what you can achieve in that time realistic? How often do you worry about work while not working?

In addition to excessive work, there is evidence that intensive work is hard to sustain. A highly intense job can involve: 

  • working to tight deadlines

  • not having enough time to get the job done

  • being required to hide our feelings and keep working

  • handling angry members of the public

  • being in situations that are emotionally disturbing for you.

On average, in 2015 almost one third of employees in OECD countries experienced job strain as a result of high job demands and low levels of control. Normally, men are 20% more likely than women to experience job strain; they are also more likely to spend long hours in paid employment.


Both work-life conflict and job strain can lead to burnout. As explained by Business in the Community, “the implications of burnout are significant - both for the individual in terms of poorer health, and the employer through higher turnover and poorer organisational performance.” So nobody wins.

Expected COVID-19 impact on work-life balance and job intensity

A cross-national European survey conducted in April revealed that:

  • 18% of all workers report working in their free time at least every other day to meet the demands of work, and this is even higher (27%) for those who work from home, where overtime work is related to ICT-enabled working ‘anytime, anywhere’. 

  • Regardless of the mode of work, around 30% of workers report worrying about work when not working. This was the most commonly reported aspect of work-life conflict. In the 2015 EWCS the top concern was ‘being too tired to do household jobs’.

  • Those with childcare responsibilities are particularly challenged by the change in work patterns as a result of COVID-19 as schools and nurseries close and grandparents aren’t able to step in. This is especially the case for people caring for young children (under 12): 22% of people living with young children “reported difficulties in concentrating on their job all or most of the time”, compared to just 5% of households with no children and 7% with children aged 12–17. This has always existed. At present, the proportion of people with young children finding it hard to focus on work or to divide time between work and family, “is larger by a huge margin compared to other groups”.

In the same line, data collected by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) shows that:

  • on average, parents in the UK are doing childcare during nine hours of the day, and housework during three 

  • mothers’ working time is interrupted more often by childcare than fathers’

  • and “despite doing less childcare than mothers, during lockdown fathers have nearly doubled the time they spend on childcare”. 

Burnout could get worse during the pandemic as mediating factors such as social support are reduced and exacerbating factors such as workloads and isolation increase, at least for some. As The Behavioural Insight Team (BIT) explain, “in the context of the coronavirus outbreak, some people are likely to be experiencing greater workplace stress and home life disruption, and so the threat of burnout could rise over the coming months.”

Some occupations might be particularly affected by increased workload and emotional demands, such as key workers. A study suggested that the experience of moral injury among front-line workers was to be expected at the outset of the pandemic. 

We know, however, that in a non-pandemic scenario the effect of workplace stressors on wellbeing can be found in a variety of sectors. According to the 2017 Skills and Employment Survey, “teachers and nurses are two professional groups that have experienced especially high levels of required work intensification” since 2012. In some occupations such as Teaching and Educational Professionals, high levels of anxiety can coexist with high levels of of sense of purpose measured by feeling that the things you do are ‘Worthwhile’

What can we do?

  • Keep track of the wellbeing of employees to identify potential emerging issues and teams that may need special attention. Employers must find quick ways to assess the mental health of their workers and identify those who need help. People who work longer hours, those shouldering additional physical and emotional workloads at home, and those who are at the frontlines of the crisis, such as food service or healthcare workers, are particularly at risk of burnout. 

  • Employers can recognise that the current crisis context may have increased employees’ workload and emotional burden and open the door to discuss how best to support them. Maintaining active communication, ensuring reasonable workloads, and proactively providing management support can reduce the risk of burnout.

  • As Karasek’s (1979) job-demands control model established a long time ago: workers who have more control over their job and clarity of what is expected of them can deal better with high intensity jobs, increased workload and emotional demands, reducing job strain, stress and anxiety. High work demands can often be offset by more positive intrinsic job characteristics, such as:

  • high involvement in decision making

  • being able to use our skills

  • training and development opportunities

  • team working

  • information sharing with co-workers

  • regular performance appraisals and job security. 

  • The implementation of even light-touch interventions such as the 911 trial showcased by BIT can improve employee wellbeing and have a positive impact on organisations. In the same line, one of our systematic reviews provides initial evidence that brief music and non-music interventions can decrease stress in the workplace.

  • While restrictions may be easing slightly, allowing some workers back into the workplace, many still feel fearful and uncertain. Keeping an open dialogue with colleagues can inform employers of how best to support their return to work and ‘onboard’ them back into the workplace.

Below are some of the ways the What Works Centre for Wellbeing can support you.


If you would like tailored help to measure your results, get in touch.

Contact us>>


Find out how other people in the UK respond to our wellbeing snapshot survey questions with these benchmarks.
Read more>>


We will soon be launching a comprehensive Workplace Wellbeing Index. You will be the first to find out about it when it's ready.

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