The Guardian view on work-life balance: a step in the right direction

Selectively muting phone messages will help draw necessary boundaries between work and home

“A man perfects himself by working,” wrote Thomas Carlyle in 1843, and though we might rightly have jettisoned other views he held (history as a parade of great men, for instance), we have not only taken this to heart, but expanded work’s dominion. “Work,” wrote Joanna Biggs in All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work, is too often “how we give our lives meaning when religion, party politics and community fall away”.

At the same time, we are increasingly aware that work cannot be everything. The phrase “work-life balance” is problematic, not least because it assumes life only happens when work stops, but its ubiquity nevertheless draws attention to its frequent absence. The pandemic has exacerbated the trend: if you didn’t lose your job, you were quite likely to be working all hours instead. Goldman Sachs juniors rebelling against 18-hour shifts, and MPs warning this month that burnout in the NHS has reached dangerous levels, are only the most obvious outbreaks of a lurking malaise.

It is probably a good thing, then, that Apple’s latest update to its iPhone operating system will allow selective muting of apps – work messages in non-work hours, for instance, or personal ones at work. The feature is probably a practical recognition of the fact that the iPhone’s “do not disturb” function was liberally used. It would be nice to think, however, that it is also a mainstream ratification of a coming sea change, of which other signs are: growing calls for a four-day week; “right to disconnect” laws being enacted across Europe, of which the latest is an Irish law addressing post-Covid home working; and the growth of anti-work thinking.

Setting aside the obvious irony of accepting a big-tech solution to a big-tech problem, there are issues. For those in precarious, unpredictable work, being unavailable might feel like an unattainable luxury. Those scrutinising the Irish law note that while it is a gain to specify that those working across time zones should only be present in their own working hours, defining working hours in a flexible environment is tricky.

We should note, too, that Apple’s new feature is called Focus – a nod to cancelling distractions and working harder. And even if they take off, will options like these be like parental leave for fathers (too often scuppered by fear of censure), or “sleep hygiene” – which in practice can separate those who have a choice from those (with childcare duties, multiple low-wage jobs) who do not? But every change must start somewhere. It is often impossible to predict when the tipping point will come. Remote working has been viewed with suspicion; now it’s normal. A full and rewarding life includes work, but is so much more than work. Anything underlining this can only be a step in the right direction.

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