Baby steps

Tory leader David Cameron touched a raw nerve when he announced earlier this year: “It’s time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB – general wellbeing.”

Meanwhile, the government is working on a raft of legislation that it hopes will create a healthier, less stressed-out population.

Recently, it launched yet another consultation as part of the government’s wide-reaching Work and Families Act, this time looking at annual leave. It proposes extending the current minimum entitlement to four weeks’ leave by adding the time equivalent to Bank and public holidays. Many employers already go beyond this proposed extension.

The Work and Families Act will also contain a number of amendments aimed at making it easier for staff with young families or caring responsibilities to continue working:

  • As of 1 October 2006, statutory maternity pay will increase from 26 weeks to 39 weeks for women with babies due on or after 1 April 2007. All women who are due at this time will also be entitled to 26 weeks’ additional maternity leave on top of their 26 weeks’ ordinary maternity leave. This means pregnant women can take a full year off work regardless of how long they have been working for their employer.

  • Women will also be able to go into work during their maternity leave for up to 10 ‘keep in touch’ days without losing statutory maternity pay, as currently happens.

  • Statutory adoption leave will extend from 26 weeks to 39 weeks for employees who are expecting to adopt on or after 1 April 2007.

  • From 6 April next year, flexible working rights are to be extended to carers of adults in addition to parents of disabled children and those with children under six.

The government is also proposing that new fathers be entitled to additional paternity leave of up to 26 weeks and additional statutory paternity pay if the mother of their child has returned to work without using her full maternity leave. However, these proposals are still in consultation, and are not expected to come into force until at least April 2008.

Employers will have it easier too. In a bid to cut administration headaches, from October this year, statutory maternity, paternity and adoption pay will be calculated on a daily, rather than weekly, basis.

Inspiring change?

But will this new legislation really encourage a culture change towards better work-life balance? Karen Black, partner at law firm Boodle Hatfield, is doubtful. “Take, for example, the changes to maternity leave,” she says. “This aims to encourage more mothers to return to work, rather than feel they have not spent enough time with their child. However, you need to ask: how much time is enough? It could be anything up to school age, so I’m dubious about how effective this will be.”

Julian Hemming, partner at law firm Osborne Clarke, questions the impact of extended maternity pay and paternity leave. “It will mean people get more money for longer [time off], but it is not life-changing money,” he says. “Many women will still have to come back to work early because of money pressures. Paternity leave is currently only taken by those who can afford it – this legislation won’t change that.”

Furthermore, the proposals for paternity leave could be challenging for employers to implement. “This will be tricky to manage because it will have to involve some sort of notification obligation between the father and the mother’s employers,” says Black.

Another concern over extended paternity leave is arranging temporary cover – when is the length of leave long enough to justify recruitment and training costs?

Flexible friends

One new rule that has been met with more optimism is the introduction of ‘keep in touch days’ for women on maternity leave.

“It can help employers plan for their return and help employees receive training, making it easier to face going back to work,” says Black.

However this will mean more work for HR. “Employees cannot just swing by the office their work will need to be organised. There may also be health and safety issues to address,” warns Black.

Increasing flexible working rights is also to be applauded, but it is up to HR to ensure that the rest of the workforce does not have to absorb the extra work.

“Flexible working cannot become a burden on other employees. This takes trial and error, and adjustments have to constantly be made,” says Hemming.

Some organisations have already implemented more flexible working practices than the new legislation proposes. McDonald’s, for example, has introduced a ‘family contract’, whereby two members of the same family can cover shifts for each other without further managerial approval.

“Our flexible approach gives greater job satisfaction as we meet employees’ needs,” says David Fairhurst, vice-president (people) at McDonald’s. “In a recent independent survey, 93% of staff said that their requests for time off were handled fairly, which speaks volumes.”

However, Fairhurst warns that organisations have to build up flexible working practices over time. “Flexibility can’t remain static – it has to evolve as people’s needs change. Not all organisations can introduce flexible working immediately it is something you have to build on.”

Richard Lowther, HR director at Dell UK, says work-life balance has been high on his agenda for the past two years. “Staff are making more requests for flexible working, and all requests for part-time working have been satisfied to date,” he says. “Four years ago, during the World Cup, we were talking about how we could stop people abusing work time. This year, we were working out what menu to provide while employees watched the match.”

Lowther believes that adopting a more flexible culture requires role models within the business. “Senior managers need to show that seeing a jacket on the back of a chair is not part of the working culture. A flexible approach should apply to every part of the workforce, not just those with caring responsibilities.”

So what can employers do to make the upcoming legislation work in their favour? Oliver Johnston, regional head of leadership services at HR consultancy Penna, says HR needs to put itself in employees’ shoes. “Stop and think what staff have to do before and after work and how this could be affecting their productivity. Then look at indicators, such as absence rates, and tune into what staff are talking about to judge whether the balance is right.

There could be a compelling argument to introduce greater flexibility, and the board will then be asking whether they can afford not to invest in initiatives.”

If employers are to achieve true work-life balance for their staff, following the letter of the law may not be enough, argues Johnston. “Legislation should be the lowest common denominator,” he says. “It will only seriously impact on work-life balance if companies are prepared to go further.”

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