Family-friendly policies have been a key fighting ground during the general election campaign which comes to an end today, but employers are beginning to question whether flexible rights have gone too far.
With greater maternity and paternity rights on the horizon whichever party wins this week’s election, as well as the imminent loss of the UK’s opt-out from the European Working Time Directive, employers’ groups are worried that work-life balance has skewed too far away from the needs of business.
Home Office figures show that the average working week dropped from 38.7 hours in 1995 to 37.4 hours in 2003.
Bill Midgley, president of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said: “The key to work-life balance is balance.”
He said Europe had gone too far one way. “We are talking about the survival of Europe as a major economic force. Europe is looking for a softer living that it can’t yet afford.”
The BCC cited the failure of France’s 35-hour working week, which it says did nothing to increase employment or long-term productivity, as an example of how damaging regulation can be. The French National Assembly has since relaxed the rule due to widespread unrest.
Kate Groucutt, policy adviser at the CBI, said that while the right to request flexible working was the correct approach, the extension to further groups could cause confusion among employers who would have to prioritise who to give the right to.
“The government must be cautious about extending the right too far,” she said.
However, Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), said increasing skills shortages would mean employers would have no choice than to offer better working conditions.
“Employers that provide work-life balance for staff are going to attract the best people,” he said.
And pensions minister Malcolm Wicks said that some of the louder voices who speak out against flexible working were “essentially echoes of voices down the centuries, people who said that if you outlaw child labour it would bring British business to its knees”.
But Wicks did admit that there were some practical issues where the government did need to be sensitive and “listen hard” to what business had to say.