The debate over the merits of flexible working has been re-opened following
a report by the Institute of Directors (IoD), which accuses work-life balance
advocates of ignoring the needs of employers and ‘demonising the workplace’.
The issue has been high on the business agenda this year, partly because of
the Employment Act, which came into force in April.
This contained a range of measures designed to improve work-life balance,
such as the right for parents to request flexible working, paternity and
parental leave, and extended maternity provision.
The recent resignation of health secretary Alan Milburn to spend more time
with his family also brought the issue back into the spotlight, highlighting
the importance of striking the right balance between work and home-life.
However, the IoD’s study, Work-life Balance Revisited, claims the case for
flexible working is based on highly-selective and distorted claims about the UK
Ruth Lea, head of the IoD’s policy unit and the paper’s author, said
government policy was based on ‘urban myths’ about the rationale behind the
need for work-life balance. She said official data shows the average working
week is actually less than 40 hours, in stark contrast to the assertion that
the UK has an endemic long-hours culture.
The IoD also attacked the idea that work makes people unhappy and ill,
citing its own research, which shows most workers are satisfied with their
Finally, Lea said UK employers were already among the most flexible in the
world, with more than 40 per cent of working women in part-time roles, compared
with the European average of 28 per cent.
"Unfortunately, the work-life balance agenda is behind many of the Government’s
family-friendly regulations, which make it ever harder to run a business,"
"Everyone should be able to balance their work, home and family lives
satisfactorily. British employers know this and are some of the most flexible
in the world," she added.
The IoD is not against work-life balance altogether, but Lea has serious
reservations and claims the employer is always the party that has to be
"The work-life balance protagonists ignore this and run an
anti-business agenda, which seems hell-bent on demonising the workplace. These
urban myths are gross distortions of the truth, and we want a more two-sided
debate," she added.
However, The Work Foundation, one of the UK’s leading advocates of work-life
balance, disputes the IoD’s conclusions, arguing that organisations embracing
the flexible working agenda will see significant business benefits.
Alexandra Jones, The Work Foundation’s policy specialist, claims greater
flexibility leads to improved productivity and higher-quality work.
"Many people have to work long hours, and some want to, but we see
work-life balance as being about the individual, not the organisation.
"We’re not trying to demonise the workplace. We just want to give
people the chance to work in different ways in response to a changing
society," she said.
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) employee
relations adviser, Mike Emmott, agrees with Lea’s assessment that work is
generally a positive part of people’s lives.
However, he is in favour of legislation promoting work-life balance because
he believes it has clear benefits for both staff and their employers.
Employees are able to balance their home and family commitments far better,
and organisations benefit through improved recruitment and retention and an
ability to develop a more diverse workforce.
"The right to request to work flexibly is a good idea, and we’d like to
see that extended to all employees," he said. "New legislation can
often be bad news for the smaller business, but there’s too much evidence on
long hours and work intensity to dispute that it is a problem."
Stress expert, Professor Cary Cooper, also disputes the IoD’s criticism of
the work-life balance agenda. He said research shows the UK’s blue-collar
employees are working three more hours a week than they were 30 years ago, and
as a result, are unproductive compared with their European counterparts.
Cooper, a professor at the University of Manchester’s Institute of
Technology, also claims his own research reveals a similar situation for
managers and a general fall in job satisfaction over the past decade.
"In 2001, 10 per cent [of managers] were working more than 61 hours a
week, 40 per cent were working more than 50 hours and a third frequently had to
work weekends," he said.
Cooper concedes that employers are getting better at work-life balance, but
argues that long hours and stress are still major problems facing British
industry. His view is supported by the TUC, which claims lack of flexibility
costs business millions of pounds through high staff turnover and absenteeism
The TUC’s work-life balance policy officer, Paul Sellers, said the labour
force survey shows that 10 million people want to work fewer hours, and some
would even be prepared to take a pay cut to do that.
"Stress and overwork is costing industry millions, and companies that
offer a greater degree of flexibility will do better than those that
don’t," he said.
According to demographic predictions by Opportunity Now, an employer-led
best practice forum that promotes the benefits of diversity, businesses will
ultimately be forced to introduce improved work-life balance if they want to
The study finds that by 2010, only 20 per cent of the working population
will be white, able-bodied males, under the age of 45. If this assessment is
accurate, employers that don’t develop effective work-life balance policies
will struggle to survive, let alone flourish, because they will be unable to
attract a higher proportion of women, older staff and people from ethnic
Views from the profession
– Martin Hinchliffe, HR director at Welcome Break, said it was
up to HR to create policies that meet the needs of the business and the staff.
"When something needs doing that is critical to the
business you expect staff to put in the extra hours, so there has to be some
give and take when they want us to be flexible," he said.
– Steven Taylor, HR director at Anglia Railway, thinks staff
were more effective when working shorter hours through schemes such as job
"A lot of our work is safety-critical, so there has been a
tendency to work short hours or a four-day week. There’s no doubt that people
work better when they work shorter hours and they’re not stressed," he
Work-life balance: the alternative
Britain is not a nation of workaholics and most staff working
long hours do so out of choice.
The IoD claims the average working week is actually less than
Far from making people unhappy and ill, the workplace is a
satisfying and rewarding part of life. Ruth Lea believes employed people are
happier and healthier than the unemployed.
UK employers are among the most flexible in the world, with
around 40 per cent of women able to work part-time.