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THE DRIVERS OF WORK-LIFE BALANCE: A CRITICAL REVIEW

Leigh-Ann Harris & Barry Foster


The notion of work-life balance (WLB) has developed as a powerful sentiment that has come to
the fore of contemporary debate in affluent Western countries, particularly Australia, Canada, New
Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The issue seems to be of
particular concern to government agencies, academics, business, the popular media and trade
unions. A comprehensive literature review was undertaken to explore and critique the issues that
are driving this interest in the WLB debate. The aim of this paper is to provide a summary of the
main findings of the review with a brief outline of the evolution of WLB from family-friendly
initiatives as well as a more detailed exploration of the key issues driving the debate, including:
the changing nature of work and associated concerns about quality of life issues, the business case
for WLB and the ageing population.

INTRODUCTION
Interest in work-life issues are primarily driven by the fact that work-life balance is viewed as
a panacea for an amorphous group of issues facing Western societies. Work-life balance
entails the adjustment of work patterns so that everyone regardless of age, race or gender can
find a rhythm that enables them more easily to combine work and their other responsibilities
and aspirations (Department of Trade & Industry cited in Arrulappan, 2003, p.6; MacInnes
2006, p.225; Maxwell & McDougal, 2004, p.378). In a practical sense, policies designed by
governments and businesses to facilitate WLB are said to resolve issues relating to the
collapse of the traditional male-breadwinner system, the changing nature of work and
associated concerns about quality of life, the potential for WLB policies to enhance business
performance and to ameliorate the anticipated economic threat from an ageing population.
The intent here is to review the literature on WLB that relates to each of these themes from a
broad international perspective and to point out areas that are problematic or require further
research. Firstly, the evolution of WLB from family-friendly policies will be discussed
followed by the key drivers of WLB. Specifically, the review will look at the changing nature
of work and associated concerns about quality of life issues, the business case for WLB, and
the relationship between WLB and the ageing population.
THE EVOLUTION OF WLB FROM FAMILY-FRIENDLY POLICIES
It is commonly asserted that WLB policies evolved from family-friendly initiatives (such as
Liddicoat, 1999; White, Hill, McGovern, Mills & Smeaton, 2003). The intent here is to look
at how the history of family-friendly initiatives, or measures designed by governments and
businesses to specifically facilitate parenting, came about in the 1970s and how the debate
broadened to WLB in the 1990s.
Early interest in reconciling the tension between work and life was primarily driven by the
erosion of the male breadwinner model, as a result of womens increased participation in the
labour market. The traditional male breadwinner model refers to an ideal of the family based
on a gendered division of labour in which mens primary role is in the paid workforce while
women primarily engage in domestic labour and care for dependents (Gornick & Meyers,
2003; Lewis & Cooper, 1995; Liddicoat, 1999). This ideal began to erode through out the
developed world from the 1970s as increasing numbers of women entered and remained in the
work-force for longer periods. This was primarily driven by a number of changes,
particularly the formulation of equal opportunities legislation that provided greater
opportunities for women in education and training (Callister, 2002; Liddicoat, 1999;
MacInnes, 2006); the desire to maintain an adequate standard of living; and the changing
structure of families, particularly the decline in family size, delayed parenthood and the
increase in solo parents (Lewis & Cooper, 1995).

The Drivers of Work-life Balance: A Critical Review

Womens increased involvement in the labour market, combined with a largely unchanged
gendered division of labour, created tensions between work and family and lead to the
creation of family-friendly policies as a means of reconciling these issues. At the micro level,
American businesses were the first to develop and implement family-friendly initiatives in the
1970s (Gonyea & Googins, 1992; Liddicoat, 1999; MacInnes, 2006). At the macro level,
governments that committed to gender equity were obligated to supply social supports to help
women combine parenting with paid employment, which included family-friendly initiatives
protected by law, such as paid parental leave. Although the term family extends beyond
women, women are most likely to be caregivers of children and other dependents so policies
were mainly designed for and used by women (Liddicoat, 1999).
However, over time a broader work-life balance debate emerged regarding the desirability of
ensuring greater balance between work and ones private life for all employees irrespective of
family status (Dex & Scheibl, 1999; Hyman, Baldry, Scholarious & Bunzel, 2003; Liddicoat,
1999). The issue of work-life balance, a term coined in 1986 in America (Lockwood, 2003),
became topical in the early 1990s because of Juliet Schors (1991) highly influential book
(956 citations in Google Scholar at October, 2007), The Overworked American: The
Unexpected Decline of Leisure, which documents how the nature of contemporary
employment has created such excessive demands on people that there has been a real decline
in leisure (White et al., 2003; Guest, 2002; MacInnes, 2006; Rapoport, Bailyn, Lewis &
Gambles, 2005). Consequently, WLB initiatives were posited as a means of helping all
employees reconcile the demands of work with their private lives, regardless of family status.
Despite the emergence of this broader concept, the notion of WLB encompasses and is
dominated by the family-friendly perspective (e.g. Center for Ethical Business Cultures, 1997;
Houston, 2005). The need for family-friendly initiatives, which are now often referred to in a
more general sense as a work-life balance issue, remain a priority for researchers and
governments (such as state funded childcare, parental leave and family payments). However,
given that this area has been the subject of extensive appraisal (e.g. Eby, Casper, Lockwood,
Bordeaux & Brinley, 2005) the other key drivers of WLB are reviewed in greater detail.
THE DRIVERS OF WLB
Although the WLB perspective was initially driven by Schors (1991) work regarding the
contemporary nature of work, it has since been associated with other drivers in the literature,
including: quality of life debates in the context of the changing nature of work in affluent
societies, enhancing business performance via the business case for work-life balance, and the
ageing population. Each of these issues, or drivers of WLB, will be reviewed in turn.
The Changing Nature of Work in Affluent Societies and the Impact on Quality of Life
It is popularly asserted that the need for WLB initiatives in affluent societies is driven by
changes in the nature of contemporary work (such as Center for Ethical Business Cultures
1997; Gambles, Lewis & Rapoport 2006; Jones, Burke & Westman 2006; MacInnes 2006).
In this area of literature, three major themes related to this driver are apparent. Firstly, the
changing nature of work in affluent societies is putting excessive demands on employees.
Secondly, the literature explores why people are willing to accept these demands and suggests
that the power of money and consumerism underpins the dominance of paid work in peoples
lives. Finally, quality of life concerns over the negative impact of long working hours on
individuals, families, communities and workplaces is discussed.
The Changing Nature of Work

The first common theme in the literature proposes that the major shift towards globalisation in
the 1980s dramatically changed the nature of work. This shift created a highly competitive
economic environment, which forced businesses in the many Western countries that embraced

The Drivers of Work-life Balance: A Critical Review

the neo-liberal ideology to adopt competitive strategies (Sparks, Faragher & Cooper, 2001).
A number of these strategies are said to undermine an individuals sense of work-life balance,
and include: increasing and varying the number of hours people work, increased work
intensity as a result of downsizing and restructuring, and the adoption of technological
advances in information technology (Bloom, Kretschmer & van Reenen 2006; Gambles,
Lewis & Rapoport, 2006; Major & Germano, 2006).
However, there is particular concern about the issue of working time, especially the decline of
the traditional nine to five working week. The average number of hours people spend in
paid employment has remained constant since the 1970s, but an increasing proportion of
workers, at least one-fifth to a third, are spending 48 hours or more per week at work in a
variety of industries and occupations (Bonney, 2005; Green, 2001; Guest, 2002; Jacobs &
Gerson, 1998; NZCTU, 2002; Pocock, van Wanrooy, Strazzari & Bridge, 2001; Pocock,
2003). In addition, the dispersion of working hours is more varied as more people are
working outside the traditional nine to five shift (Bonney, 2005; Green, 2001; NZCTU,
2002). This is driven by the rise of the service sector along with the liberalisation of many
economies that has subsequently increased demands for round-the-clock or extended service
periods (Green, 2001; Hyman et al., 2003).
The Power of Money and Consumerism

The second common theme in the literature suggests that peoples willingness to accept the
dominance of paid work in their lives is underpinned by the power of money and
consumerism. There are a group of workers who work long hours because they simply can
not afford to live if they worked less (Dawson, McCulloch & Baker, 2001; de Bruin &
Dupuis, 2004; NZCTU, 2002; Pocock, 2003). However, many people work long hours in
order to fulfill material ambitions in a consumer society that has developed powerful forms of
advertising and credit purchase systems. Therefore people often accept high work demands
simply to service their personal debt (Schor, 1991; White, Hills, McGovern, Mills &
Smeaton, 2003; NZDOL, 2003; Pocock, 2003).
These economic forces combined with concern over long working hours suggests that WLB
initiatives must be about more than simply a reduction in the number of hours that people
spend in paid employment. It implies that a much broader societal shift is required to bring
about any real change, which is beyond the scope of the contemporary WLB. However, the
WLB debate has the potential to expand in the future to potentially address more fundamental
type issues concerning societal norms, such as consumerism.
Quality of Life

The third main theme in this area of the literature concerns quality of life debates that have
only recently been associated with WLB given the concern over the long and varied working
hours and because the focus of attention has shifted from the quantity to the quality of jobs, as
unemployment has fallen across most Western countries. Traditionally the issue of quality of
life has not been seen as relevant to WLB (Jones, Kinman & Payne, 2006), yet there is an
extensive amount of literature concerning the negative impact of long working hours on
individuals, families, communities and workplaces that should provide an extremely
compelling argument for the need of WLB initiatives.
The impact of long hours and the perception that work is increasingly intense has a negative
overall affect on individuals in terms of their physical and mental well being. Dawson,
McCulloch and Baker (2001) have published an extensive review of the large body of well
supported quantitative literature examining the consequences of long work hours on health
and mental functioning. They suggest that the most prominent issue relates to fatigue and
exhaustion because of insufficient recuperative sleep as people become trapped in a

The Drivers of Work-life Balance: A Critical Review

work/eat/sleep cycle (NZCTU, 2002, Pocock et al., 2001). This affects mental functioning
as people may experience lapses in concentration, the inability to comprehend complex
situations, and increases the likelihood of people engaging in risk-taking behaviours (Dawson,
McCulloch & Baker, 2001). In addition, long working hours are also indirectly associated
with negative health outcomes, including: high blood pressure and heart problems; excessive
food and alcohol consumption; smoking; weight loss or gain associated with poor physical
exercise, unbalanced nutrition and irregular meals; and illnesses induced by high levels of
stress (Dawson, McCulloch & Baker, 2006; Jones, Kinman & Payne, 2006; NZCTU, 2002;
Pocock et al., 2001)
This inevitably impacts on peoples perception of their quality of life and general life
satisfaction. Research findings, largely based on qualitative interviews, highlight that the
pressures of work reduce opportunities for people to spend time with family, friends, or to
peruse their own interests, which inevitably leads to the erosion of support networks and can
lead to moodiness, loneliness and depression (Gambles, Lewis & Rapoport, 2006; NZCTU,
2002, Pocock et al., 2001).
Emerging literature suggests that working long hours also has adverse affects on family
members and relations. Gornick and Meyers (2003) assert that the earliest concern related to
issues about child development in the absence of a parent in the home. Increasingly children
and dependents are being cared for in institutional settings as opposed to the home and more
fundamentally undermining traditional family values of time, love and care (Pocock, 2003).
Yet, people who are unable to spend time with their children and other family members are
often left with a sense of irreparable loss and guilt (Gambles, Lewis & Rapoport, 2000; Jones,
Burke & Westman, 2006; Pocock et al., 2001). However, it is often noted that when people
do have the opportunity to socialize they are often too tired to spend quality time with family.
Ultimately the invasiveness of paid work can contribute to divorce and family break-ups
(Gambles, Lewis & Rapoport, 2006; NZCTU, 2002; Pocock et al., 2001).
In addition, it is increasingly recognised that longer working hours mean a declining interest
and participation in local communities and civic activities, which threatens community
sustainability, civic spirit and most importantly the care of community members (Lewis,
Rapoport & Gambles, 2003). The care of children, the elderly and people with disabilities is
often dependent on volunteers, especially in an environment where governments are trying to
increase community care and reduce institutionalization. Consequently, there is concern that
the most vulnerable members of the society will suffer (Guest, 2002; Pocock et al., 2001).
In their comprehensive review of the impact of long work hours, Dawson, McCulloch &
Baker (2001), also review how the consequences of long work hours impact on the
workplace. The physical and mental side affects of work excess previously mentioned, such
as exhaustion, lapses in concentration, the inability to comprehend complex situations, and
increases the likelihood of people engaging in risk-taking behaviours, have serious
implications for the workplace. Specifically, they impact on productivity, absenteeism, raise
concerns about health and safety, liability and the costs of accidents and injuries (Dawson,
McCulloch & Baker, 2001).
The extensive amount of literature concerning the negative impact of long working hours on
individuals, families, communities and workplaces should provide an extremely compelling
argument for the need for WLB initiatives. On this basis, it is hoped that this issue will
become a more prominent driver of the WLB debate in the future.

The Drivers of Work-life Balance: A Critical Review

The Business Case for Work-Life Balance


The second key driver is the business case for WLB, which is a prominent feature of the more
popular type of literature promoting the business benefits to be gained if workplaces adopt
work-life balance policies. According to Yasbek (2004, p.2) the business case is established
by weighing up the costs and benefits of introducing work-life balance policies and
determining if the net impact is positive. The business case is widely supported and
promoted by a number of parties giving it strong credibility. Firstly, there is academic
support for the adoption of WLB policies in workplaces (such as Dex & Scheibl, 1999; Lewis
& Cooper, 1995). Secondly, Western governments are major promoters of WLB, including:
Australia (Department of Consumer and Employment Protection: Government of Western
Australia, 2006), Canada (Government of Canada, 2004), New Zealand (State Services
Commission, 2005) and the United Kingdom (Department of Trade & Industry, 2001).
Thirdly, organisations that advocate best-practice business initiates often preach the business
benefits of WLB policies, such as the Work/Life Association and EEO Trust. The intent here
is to present the commonly cited benefits and costs of WLB policies along with a discussion
of the issues that undermine the business case, particularly the validity of the benefits, the
inadequate attention that the costs receive, and the limited generalizability of the business
case overall.
Business Benefits of Work-Life Balance Policies

The various stakeholders promote the business case by presenting the benefits that will
enhance business performance or add to the bottom line. A set of performance measures are
used to evaluate the benefits of WLB policies, which most frequently include: reduced
absenteeism (such as DTI, 2001; Employers & Work-Life Balance, 2005; EEO Trust, 2006;
Government of Canada, 2004; Maxwell & McDougal, 2004), increased staff retention (such
as Dex & Scheibl, 1999; DTI, 2001; EEO Trust, 2006; Gonyea & Googins, 1992; Maxwell &
McDougall, 2004), improved corporate image (such as Holtermann, 1995; Employers &
Work-Life Balance, 2005), increased productivity (such as Eaton, 2001; Gonyea & Googins,
1992; Government of Canada, 2004; Konrad & Mangel, 2000) and a more flexible workforce
(such as Eaton, 2001).
However, these business benefits are questionable due to methodological considerations. It is
often unclear what methodologies are utilised to generate such findings, but the information
gathered is typically based on managers and employees perceptions of the impacts of WLB
(Gonyea & Googins, 1992; Maxwell & McDougall, 2004). This is perceived to be
unscientific and as a result, many businesses rightly question whether the promoted benefits
are legitimate (Roper, Cunningham & James, 2002).
In addition, the fact that it is difficult to quantitatively measure the link between WLB and
other variables also casts doubt on the espoused benefits. For example, measuring the impact
that WLB policies have on absenteeism is complex. Employees may be reluctant to admit to
the true cause of their absence (Dex & Scheibl, 1999; Gonyea & Googins, 1992) and
determining the cost of absenteeism is fraught with difficulties as calculations must factor in
wages and benefits of the absent employee, wages and benefits of those coping with or filling
in for the absentee, overtime, production loss and potential quality issues (Cascio, 2000, cited
in Gonyea & Googins, 1992; Holtermann, 1995).
Costs of Work-Life Balance Policies

The costs of WLB policies are a crucial aspect for businesses to consider when undertaking a
cost-benefit analysis and are typically referred to in the literature in either one of two ways.
Firstly, the direct or indirect costs of WLB policies are documented and will ultimately
depend on the type and coverage of the policies the workplace chooses to adopt (Gray, 2002),

The Drivers of Work-life Balance: A Critical Review

but most commonly include: increased administration costs (Dex & Scheibl, 1999; Yasbek,
2004), coping with staff absences (Dex & Scheibl, 1999; Yasbek, 2004); temporary
reductions in productivity arising from disruptions (Yasbek, 2004); costs associated with
investigating, drawing up and implementing policies (Yasbek, 2004); reduced morale for
those employees who do not have access to WLB initiatives (Maxwell & McDougall, 2004;
Yasbek, 2004); and the direct costs associated with providing resources for various initiatives,
such as the cost of equipment to allow staff to work at home (Yasbek, 2004). Secondly, the
costs of not implementing WLB policies are commonly speculated about, such as the price
organisations will pay for higher levels of turnover and recruitment difficulties in the absence
of WLB policies (DTI, 2001; Lewis & Cooper, 1995; State Services Commission, 2005).
However, the costs of WLB policies are rarely presented in the business case literature. This
is perhaps intended to convince employers of the need to embrace WLB policies without
jeopardizing the economic viability of the entity (White et al., 2003). Yet, in order to present
a more balanced argument and to allow businesses to make informed decisions, the WLB
business case literature should always represent the actual costs of WLB policies.
Limited Generalizability of the Business Case

In a broader sense, there are issues with the business case because both the costs and benefits
are based primarily on case study evidence that has limited generalizability to the
organisations that offer WLB policies, which tend to have certain characteristics. A case
study is defined as an extensive examination of a single instance of a phenomena of
interestwhich focuses on understanding the dynamics present within a single setting
(Collins & Hussey, 2003, p.68). This methodology is beneficial as it provides a rich
understanding of the context in which the research takes place, but is difficult to make robust
generalizations about the impact of WLB initiatives because firms that have policies may not
be representative or typical of firms that do not offer WLB policies (Bryman, 1989; Dex &
Scheibl, 1999; Evans, 2001; Gonyea & Googins, 1992; Yasbek, 2004). For example, firms
that offer WLB policies are most likely to be firstly, larger organisations with the expertise
and resources to implement policies (Konrad & Mangel, 2000); secondly, employ a large
proportion of females with scare or highly valued skills (Konrad & Mangel, 2000; Evans,
2001); and finally, operate in the finance, insurance, real estate and public sectors. No
specific reason is given as to why policies are offered in the former sectors; however, public
sector organisations are most likely to offer policies because they must comply with
legislative requirements to be a good employer and work-life policies are often one of the
easier strategies for them to implement (Yasbek, 2004).
Overall, in order for more robust generalizations to be made about the business case for WLB
there is a need for more extensive quantitative research that utilise more innovative
methodologies in a variety of organisational settings. There is a particular need for more
research into the benefits and costs of specific WLB policies in a variety of organisational
contexts, such as small to medium sized businesses as there is a dearth of research into the
business affects of WLB policies in these enterprises besides some research by the EEO Trust
(2006) and Dex and Scheibl (2001). Businesses will only invest potentially large sums of
money in WLB polices if the business case is substantiated with more extensive and rigorous
research (Dex & Sheibl, 1999; Gonyea & Googins, 1992).
The Ageing Population
Changing demographic trends are frequently identified as one of the main reasons why WLB
is topical (such as Dey, 2006; DTI, 2001; MacInnes, 2006; Pocock, 2003). On review of the
literature, a number of themes are apparent. Firstly, demographic statistics reveal that
Western populations are ageing, as people are living longer and fertility rates are decreasing.

The Drivers of Work-life Balance: A Critical Review

Secondly, this population decline is a major cause of anxiety for governments. Thirdly, WLB
is seen as a means of ameliorating the negative impact an ageing population and is therefore
high up on the policy agenda of the governments of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the
United Kingdom, and a wide range of European countries. However, it is questionable
whether WLB initiatives are an appropriate solution to the perceived issues.
Demographic Trends

The first major theme relates to the fact that demographic trends forecast a rapid ageing of
Western populations. Over the last thirty years mortality rates have decreased and fertility
rates have fallen below the level that leads to the replacement of one generation by the next
(Callister, 2002; Dey, 2006; Leitner & Wroblewski, 2006; MacInnes, 2006; McDonald &
Kippen, 2001). The rate of ageing is expected to increase more rapidly over the next decades
as the large post-World War II cohort, more commonly known as the baby boomers, reach
retirement (McDonand & Kippen, 2001).
Issues Associated with Population Decline

Secondly, population decline is a major cause of anxiety for many Western governments as it
is predicted that countries will experience either stagnation or a reduction in the size of the
labour force, which is likely to pose two major issues (McDonald & Kippen, 2001). Firstly, it
will be difficult for a smaller labour force to support a larger, elderly, retired population in
welfare states (Callister, 2002; Dey, 2006; MacInnes, 2006). Secondly, there is concern over
how a reduced labour supply will impact on economic production and growth (Dey, 2006;
Leitner & Wroblewski, 2006). According to Dey (2006, p.672) competitive societies have
generally been those with ready supplies of labour, sustained through increased labour market
participation, natural population growth or substantial immigration. Consequently, it is
predicted that countries that maintain their labour supplies over the next few decades are
likely to be more competitive than those that experience a significant reduction in labour
supply. Therefore, Western governments are challenged to formulate solutions to reduce the
problems associated with an ageing population to buoy long-term economic prospects.
WLB Policies as a Solution: But are they Appropriate?

The third major theme suggests that WLB policies are increasingly seen as a tool to facilitate
employment and population growth, thereby ameliorating the affects of an ageing population.
Via such policies, governments hope to improve labour supply by securing higher levels of
economic activity among those nearing retirement age and women, through measures to
facilitate the combination of work and family life or other activities (Callister, 2002;
MacInnes, 2006).
However, the evidence that labour supply and fertility can be improved via WLB initiatives is
mixed. The more optimistic evidence is based on international comparative data that shows
Italy, which has no family-friendly supports, has low fertility and high female unemployment
versus the Nordic countries, which have generous family-friendly supports, high levels of
female employment and replacement fertility levels (Callister, 2002; Dey, 2006; Gornick &
Meyers, 2003).
However, these results should be interpreted carefully as they are not necessarily transferable
to other countries. Nordic countries are unique in that they achieve high levels of female
employment and replacement fertility levels with a range of welfare state regulations and
institutions that consistently support this goal (Gornick & Meyers, 2003; Leitner &
Wroblewksi, 2006). In contrast, other countries aim to achieve this yet their policy mixes are
ambivalent and potentially ineffective. For example, the New Zealand government tries to
increase female employment, but does not provide adequate infrastructure for all citizens to

The Drivers of Work-life Balance: A Critical Review

access, but advocates for deinstitutionalization of societys most vulnerable into community
settings where volunteers, namely women, take on the primary care role (Callister, 2002).
In light of these findings numerous academics question whether WLB is an adequate answer
to the complex challenges of demographic issues (such as Callister, 2002; Dey, 2006;
MacInnes, 2006). Outside the Nordic countries, it is difficult to see how WLB policies would
encourage a significant amount of women to consider having a first child or subsequent
children. The general consensus is that WLB policies are unlikely to prove sufficient
instruments for promoting womens employment and fertility.
CONCLUSION
The literature popularly asserts that the issue of WLB is driven by the changing nature of
work and associated quality of life issues, the business case and the ageing population.
However, within these various themes there are numerous areas of the literature that are
problematic or require further research.
Resolving the tension between the changing nature of work, particularly concern over long
working hours, and the economic forces that compel people to work is perhaps beyond the
scope of the contemporary notion of WLB. However, the WLB debate has the potential to
expand in the future to potentially address more fundamental type issues concerning societal
norms.
The quality of life issues have only recently been associated with WLB and are yet to gain
widespread traction with the debate. However, the extensive amount of literature concerning
the negative impact of long working hours on individuals, families, communities and
workplaces should provide an extremely compelling argument for the need of WLB
initiatives. On this basis, it is hoped that this issue will become a more prominent driver of
the WLB debate in the future.
The business case for WLB is perhaps the most problematic issue driving the debate given
that it is so extensively promoted, but is based on a limited amount of convincing evidence.
There is a need for greater research in this area, particularly validating the costs and benefits
of WLB policies in a variety of organizational settings.
Furthermore, to suggest that WLB initiatives can resolve issues regarding the ageing
population is overly optimistic. WLB policies are unlikely to prove sufficient instruments for
addressing the issue of ageing Western populations by promoting employment and fertility.
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The Drivers of Work-life Balance: A Critical Review

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