Work-life balance? What’s that, asks the Indian employee traveling 8 hours a day

No time for a break.
No time for a break.
Image: Reuters/Vivek Prakash
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In an upscale lifestyle boutique in south Mumbai, the concept of work-life balance is a bit of a joke.

So much so that when a friend who works there announced to her colleagues that I was looking for someone to interview for this story, ideally someone who felt that their work-life balance had been compromised, the entire group burst out laughing. That’s because they all had horror stories to share, stories of working overtime for no extra pay or giving up their days off with little to no notice at all.

“I would say it is very difficult to have work-life balance working in retail… there’s probably no work-life balance at all,” my friend, who is 25 and has worked at the store for around nine months, said. She asked to remain anonymous to protect her job.

While officially the opening hours of the store are fixed between 10am and 8pm, in reality employees find themselves working longer, keeping the doors open late to accommodate customers looking to pick up luxury tableware or other home decor items past closing hours. Even taking their one mandated day off every week is sometimes a struggle, because no two employees in the small team can be away at the same time, making for difficult situations in cases of medical or family-related emergencies.

This is certainly an extreme situation but the employees’ gripes are no doubt familiar to those of Indian workers in other industries, too. Across the country, work-life balance remains elusive with many spending hours at the office, often at the expense of their personal lives.

Indeed, five of India’s biggest cities —Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai, and New Delhi—rank extremely low when it comes to work-life balance, according to a recent study of 100 cities around the world by the Amsterdam-based consultancy Arcadis. While Bengaluru, Chennai, and Kolkata ranked in the 70s, Mumbai was at number 86 and New Delhi at 87.

To measure work-life balance, Arcadis’ Sustainable Cities Report looked into the average annual working hours in each city and the results were clear: Indians work around 2,195 hours on an average every year, far above the 1,473 hours a year in Hamburg, the city that ranked among the top three for work-life balance.

That adds to the results of a 2015 study by EY that surveyed work-life balance in eight countries, including India. Over 30% of the Indian respondents in that study said that managing work, family, and personal responsibilities had become harder in the past five years.

Policies on paper

To be sure, in recent years, the need for work-life balance has increasingly been acknowledged by a number of companies across sectors in India. A 2012 study published in the South Asian Journal of Global Business Research showed that among private and multinational firms like Hindustan Unilever, Infosys, and GE, “work-life interventions” ranging from flexible hours and work-from-home options to childcare facilities at the workplace were made available for employees.

“It’s certainly very much more in the consciousness of HR departments than it was even 20 years ago [or] 15 years ago,” Ujvala Rajadhyaksha, the author of the study and an assistant professor at Governors State University in Illinois, said.

That could explain why India is surprisingly ahead of the curve when it comes to paternity leave, for instance. Around 75% of Indian firms now offer days off for new dads, according to data from Mercer. That puts India among the five countries with the most companies offering paternity leave above the statutory requirement. And with maternity leave being extended to around six months, India Inc. has definitely taken some big steps forward toward making life easier for new parents.

But while on paper that sounds like great news, it’s not necessarily great in reality, notably for Indian women. That’s because most Indian working women struggle with a double burden: they’re expected to take good care of their kids and households and at the same time thrive in the workplace. While companies are investing in programs to improve gender diversity in the office, with mentorship schemes and professional workshops targeting women, these policies don’t have an effect on women’s conventional social roles as good wives and mothers.

“Gender roles have not changed rapidly enough… So you see particularly working women in India getting buffeted by the stresses and strains of trying to deal with longer work hours and not shedding off their older roles,” Rajadhyaksha said.

And that’s a problem for work-life balance.

Bengaluru-based Chaya D knows this story all too well. The 51-year-old worked in the hotel industry for years, including a stint with the Taj Group, putting in long hours to keep up with the demands of her job. But when her two daughters were born in the ’90s, she decided to take a seven-year sabbatical to have more time with her family.

“The majority of women who work for hotels have this challenge,” she said, adding that Indian women bear the burden of raising children with often very little help from their husbands. This forces them to rely on live-in maids or in-laws if they continue working. But such help isn’t always easy to find.

Meanwhile, corporate India is a long way away from making room for the daily demands of childcare. Even though a number of companies are offering creches and day-care facilities on site, they’re still not common enough. Many talented women, thus, take long career breaks  or even quit permanently.

And what makes things worse for all workers is a problem particular to India: dreadful urban infrastructure.

The travails of traffic

India’s cities are already overcrowded, but the UN estimates that another 300 million people will be living in these centers by 2050. That’s a problem because urban infrastructure in India is already creaky.

Indeed, in Bengaluru, the Silicon Valley of India, traffic is so bad that employees spend on an average two hours a day commuting, adding up to a whopping 470 hours per employee, per year.

Last year a satirical website joked that IT companies would offer “Work from Traffic” as an option to employees. It’s not so far-fetched, given that it’s not uncommon to see the city’s techies stuck in traffic jams, working on their laptops inside of cabs.

In Mumbai and its suburbs, some people travel an insane eight hours a day getting to and from work. As Rajadhyaksha puts it, that’s “a lot of unproductive time just being stuck on the streets.”

For employees who work in the technology industry, for instance, this sorry state of affairs, combined with the need to coordinate business with people in other time zones, notably the US, makes work life hell.

A 31-year-old project manager who works in Bengaluru’s tech industry told me that it’s the “outside office” factors that mark the difference between working in India and working in a country like the US, where he lived for three years. In India, the work day often starts late because of traffic—plus the time it takes to recover from being stuck in traffic. The day ends late, too, because of frequent evening meetings.

And while he noted that company policies were in place to encourage work-life balance, the reality is that work comes first.

“I work for one of the better companies and they do attempt” to encourage work-life balance, he said. However, at end of the day, “what matters is business,” he said.

And that goes for every industry, making the balance of work and life a complicated endeavor in India.

This Quartz story originally appeared on Quartz India and on on Oct. 5, 2016.