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Boost productivity and enjoy life by boosting your work-life balance

Dr Almuth McDowall on work life balance research and business impact

Boost productivity and enjoy life by boosting your work-life balance


Calling all entrepreneurs, employees and employers – a good work-life balance can make for both a happier and more fulfilling personal life and a more contented and productive workplace, according to current thinking. A lecture at Birkbeck looked at how everyone can achieve such benefits.

Dr Almuth McDowall, Course Director for Birkbeck’s MSc in Human Resource Development and Consultancy, considered the topic in an evening lecture on Tuesday 23 June in Birkbeck’s beautiful Keynes Library, 43-46 Gordon Square.

The evening was organised by Be Birkbeck, the college’s scheme for “lifelong learners and people who want to engage in higher education without signing up to a degree, or want to continue to engage following completion of their degree”, as described by the evening’s facilitator and Be Birkbeck’s leader, Professor Miriam Zukas, Executive Dean of the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy and Professor of Adult Education.

Considering work-life balance from a psychological viewpoint, Dr McDowall posed the question: What is work-life balance, and how can you make this work?

Providing an introduction into relevant research and critiques, Dr McDowall clearly explained concepts related to human nature and individual differences whilst demonstrating impact to businesses, in particular levels of absenteeism. Certain groups of workers were highlighted and contrasted, knowledge workers and those involved in emotional labour (for example social workers) before solutions were cited and tested against research evidence. Firm conclusions were drawn offering the audience the opportunity to leave with clear action points for their personal strategy for addressing work life balance as well as key points for implementing within their organisations, as line managers and decision makers.

The lecture followed an event on 15 May that Dr McDowall co-hosted at Birkbeck with Gail Kinman, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire. The day was part of the British Psychological Society Funded Seminar Series: the Always On Culture, and looked at how individuals use technology in work and leisure and its positive and negative implications for wellbeing in each case.

Interviewed in the June edition of the British Psychological Society’s Psychologist Magazine, Dr McDowall spoke enthusiastically about Birkbeck and her work at the university, noting its beginnings as a college for the “working men of London” and its history as one of the first colleges to admit women students.

In the interview Dr McDowall also saw Birkbeck as having a particular relevance to the issue of work-life balance (both for her own schedule and her studies), because of the college’s out-of-hours timetable, with its identity as an institution for people meeting full-time work commitments. In this context Dr McDowall said: “I’ve come to relish the full-day workshops.”

Dr McDowall brings a wide range of academic and practical experience to her subject. After a career in health and fitness, including work as a personal instructor, particularly with performing artists, she retrained in psychology and practised as a senior consultant for London City University’s Psychometrics Centre before moving to Surrey University. She continues to work with major UK police forces.

Dr McDowall practices as an independent consultant in public and private sectors and is also widely published. As well as academic publications, her research has featured in the press, including Grazia Magazine, the Financial Times and Sunday Times. In addition she speaks on national and regional radio.

This combination of academic and practical experience was reflected in the Be Birkbeck presentation, which included practical suggestions that each attendee could apply to seeking a personal work-life balance.

This built on an important message from the evening: that work-life balance is personal and particular to each individual. Nor is every personal work-life balance constant. Instead it may change through life as circumstances shift.

Dr McDowall also outlined how concepts of coordinating work and personal life, terms for describing the process and priorities and approaches for achieving it also differ between countries, cultures, individuals and genders.

Through her presentation, Dr McDowall showed what a complex and fluid subject work-life balance is, and how individuals can proactively seek it for themselves and work with employers and other organisations to cooperate in approaching it. For a current research project, Dr McDowall is interested in collecting more data from teachers and would be interested in hearing from leaders in schools.