While a couple of years ago stability was the most important thing for job-seekers, work/life balance has strongly overtaken that.

This was the conclusion of research by finance and accounting recruiter Robert Half, which found that work/life balance is the factor that 79 per cent of New Zealand finance and accounting professionals rank as a number one priority. It was more important for women (86 per cent) than men (72 per cent).

Three-quarters (77 per cent) of those surveyed also prioritised working in an enjoyable environment, while having a manager they respect and can learn from (69 per cent) rounded out the three benefits most valued in the workplace.

Working for a stable company (58 per cent) and having job security (47 per cent) were also important considerations, but sat further down the list.

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Robert Half New Zealand general manager Megan Alexander says New Zealanders really value work/life balance.

"During the past recession, one of the key drivers in looking for a job was stability. Now other factors apply - life/work balance often entails having a good boss and work environment, not getting stuck in traffic daily is also very important - so finding work close to where one lives can be a vital consideration."

Alexander says that during the recession organisations decreased staff numbers, creating leaner teams. This gave individuals a tougher load - the danger after three years is that this could become the norm.

"Employees are aware that their company may not change and build up their staff complement, and are now searching for jobs that give more work/life balance than job security."

Alexander says there is a small increase in hiring in the sectors that Robert Half deals with, but there are also skill shortages in the accounting area. "Those candidates have a choice - and those not wanting to work 60-hour or more weeks will move."

As far as companies are concerned, she says, they've been fortunate for the past three years as people have stayed in their roles.

"But when the human resources people look at this and see that there has been no real staff turnover, they seem to risk sitting on their laurels.

"They need to understand the reason for the lack of movement is not always because people are happy with the way things are going in the company - that a lot of it has been about market conditions."

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Alexander says hiring managers need to understand what their employees are thinking. "And we've found that a lot are thinking of change - finding better opportunities that are closer to home."

What is required, says Alexander, is an understanding of market conditions. "There comes a point where people stop wanting to put up with extra pressure, they stop being 'understanding' - particularly when it starts becoming the norm."

She says the research shows that women value work/life balance more than men - but that it's still an important consideration for men.

The survey found women are more likely to be attracted by a flexible schedule and the ability to work from home (12 per cent of women versus 3 per cent of men), or the opportunity to work for an inspirational manager (14 per cent of women versus 6 per cent of men).

Men are drawn to a new role that pays them more (29 per cent of men versus 22 per cent of women) and provides more challenging responsibilities (23 per cent of men versus 15 per cent of women).

"A lot of accountants who qualify in New Zealand go overseas to work - they come back here for lifestyle reasons," Alexander says. "So many are here for a balanced work/life lifestyle. If they don't get this, they feel that they may as well leave."

Alexander says the risk factors of running lean teams are burnout and disengagement. "When people leave, it's not only the cost of the recruitment fee that needs considering, there's the loss of knowledge and other factors."

She says the concept of work/life balance differs between individuals. "Some people thrive on doing 80- hour weeks, but many don't. It's about having the right employee relationship. Some people need to have flexibility.

"A young mum who came to us needed to knock off work at 5pm, but she was happy to get online again at 8pm and do some work from home. What she needed was flexibility. Others may want to come in late and leave at 6.30pm to miss the traffic. It should all be negotiable."

Auckland's "Dr Stress", John McEwan, agrees: "Balance means you have two feet firmly on the ground rather than two feet firmly under the ground. It means you are enjoying yourself rather than being tipped over. It means everything is working."

He adds: "You need to work to live, you need to make enough money to enjoy life, but if you get things out of balance, you don't have joy in either place. And the thing is you need to have joy in both places. There has to be enjoyment in work, and in your life outside of work."

McEwan says job satisfaction means your job has meaning, as does your life. "People who see no point in what they are doing suffer the most. It's hard for them to recharge their batteries. People will work harder if they see there's a point, but working 60 to 70 hours a week is just dumb. Why work yourself to death?"

McEwan says it's important for people to enjoy life while they're working - which means what they're doing matters. "It's not okay to feel you're being treated like crap and then are flipped off a shoe. The smart thing to do in that situation is to say: 'I don't want to work for you."'

McEwan says work/life balance doesn't have to be at a 50:50 ratio. "It can be 80:20 if the workplace is a good one to be in."

He says time away from work is about recharging your batteries for health, family, community and other things that matter to you. "It's about keeping a balance in life, and enjoying positive things. It's about being intelligently selfish - not doing things that deplete you."

McEwen says not finding time for something that is important to you - say art, music or family - is denying a crucial part of who you are. "If we can't do something that helps us become who we want to be, we can't become who we were made to be."

* Robert Half regularly surveys finance, accounting and banking professionals, as well as those involved in making staffing decisions, to discuss their opinions on issues relating to the economy, hiring trends and workplace habits. The survey conducted in May 2011 included 3542 HR, finance, accounting and banking professionals in Australia, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Singapore. A total of 426 respondents, including 227 hiring managers, were surveyed in New Zealand.