Work-life balance from perspectives of social development

By GAO YA, GUO XINGHUA / 04-07-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: Work-life balance has become an issue that baffles many people.

From sociological perspectives, although time is natural, the way it is distributed, consumed, and spent is determined by social structures. On the whole, time in the sociological sense is an expression of social activities. Questions regarding time usage are closely related to degrees of social development and can even be used as the basis for social stratification. 

Prevalent overtime work
According to data released by the National Bureau of Statistics in December 2021, employees in Chinese enterprises work an actual average of 47.8 weekly hours, far exceeding 44 hours—the stipulated weekly hours according to Chinese regulations for working hours. This kind of overtime work is common in all sectors. Many enterprises even regard unpaid overtime work as part of their company culture, and whether an employee works overtime has become an unspoken benchmark to measure whether employees are dedicated to the job and perform well. A series of negative effects brought by long periods of overtime work are pervasive: large quantities of  groups are diagnosed as subhealthy, and there are frequent occurrences of psychological disease. 
A series of unpleasant realities have triggered social reflection, but reflection does not mean change, and these hard realities continue. People are clearly aware that any overtime work, especially excessively long overtime work, which sometimes is unpaid, not only violates the Labor Contract Law of the People’s Republic of China, but also greatly impacts both the physical and mental health of employees. However, many still regard overtime work as a type of market behavior, which should be adapted to. As social cultures use “time is money” as a golden motto, workers face the risk of losing job opportunities if they cannot abide by this tacit rule. 
Labor time liquidates one’s intangible capital (personal time and working competency), turning these into value. In contrast, leisure time, instead of being directly absorbed by productive labor, serves for recreation and rest, and opens up a vast world of free activities and development--this makes it relatively cheap. In this way, the status of labor time is imperceptibly elevated and becomes superior. Once labor time becomes a scarce resource, leisure time is used for work instead. If social members try to avoid this, they will be punished. Undoubtedly, employers are the beneficiaries of this phenomenon—the benefits brought to companies with prolonged working hours are obvious. Even if some departments don’t generate real financial benefits, the atmosphere can capture more employees, drawing workers in like an endless black hole through this self-restricting action. 
Time distribution and labor division 
In the early period of China’s social development, if it was understandable that people had to devote all their free time to solving basic needs such as food, clothing, housing, and transportation, while reducing and ignoring leisure time, then our consideration of leisure time should be more progressive now than before. 
As competition between enterprises becomes increasingly intense, market uncertainty and the pressure in life that comes with it is increasingly heavy, overburdening for every employee. Especially in China, a country with a large population and long-term oversupply of the labor force, people urgently need to demonstrate their personal value to guarantee stability in their job posts. In some companies, it is even a prerogative for the foreman to decide who should work overtime and how much time they work. Workers are even proactive in asking for overtime work, and even ingratiate themselves with the foreman in order to get overtime-work permission. 
Given the refinement of division of labor in society, each workplace has been integrated into the whole of society and together, they become an entirety. The result is that the work between many departments within a sector are strongly correlated. Programmers cannot leave half-finished code just because they are off work; doctors cannot stop halfway through an operation just because it is time to leave; the police cannot stop arresting criminals just because they have not had adequate rest for several days and nights. Some types of work cannot be rationally arranged according to working hours as stipulated, due to the close connection between skills used in each working procedure or the unpredictability of their work and those they serve. 
One of the changes brought about by the highly developed social division of labor is that the once loose flexible working mode has gradually transformed into a rigid working mode with compactly arranged paid hours. Time has become an important component of the capital possessed by a person. Regardless of birth, senility, illness, death, and all kinds of accidents, everyone’s working time is similarly limited, and the only time-capital that can be expanded is during their equally limited leisure time. With the development of modern information technology, it is increasingly common for us to handle work without being confined to workplaces. Online video conferencing, email, and Wechat can pull people back to work anytime and anywhere, and the boundary between working and non-working hours has become increasingly blurred in most cases. Work tasks can arrive at any moment—while one takes high-speed rail, or while having a picnic or a dinner.
Social status and leisure time 
In The Theory of the Leisure Class, the American economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen pointed out that the habitual life mode is what distinguishes the wealthy leisure class from the servant class. For example, the wealthy class spends their leisure time yachting, playing golf, or other sports and in such places as churches, theatres, ballrooms, hotels, parks, shops, and the like. But the leisure of the servant class is not normally or primarily directed to their own comfort. Domestic service which is included in the duties of the servant class might aptly be designated as wasted effort, rather than as vicarious leisure. 
Therefore, the possession of abundant leisure time does not mean high social status and comfortable status quo, and the crux of the issue hinges upon how people spend their leisure time. Being a philosopher in the morning and an angler in the afternoon is not suitable for everyone. The highest potency of leisure time should be self-realization, as defined by Marx as the personal capabilities and social potentials which do not serve any purpose for practice. In addition, social development pursues not only a reduction of labor time and increase of leisure time, but a balance between labor and leisure, and to finally make labor itself a type of leisure.  
Gao Ya and Guo Xinghua are from the Research Center of Sociological Theories and Methods at Renmin University of China. 
Edited by BAI LE