Balancing act

Helping employees keep a satisfactory balance between the demands of their
job and the competing needs of their private lives is increasingly necessary if
valuable employees are to be retained.  By
Jane Parkin

The CBI estimates that stress is the second most common cause of
work-related illness1. It is recognised that contributing factors include long
working hours, travelling and family responsibilities. It is not surprising,
therefore, that City firms are losing young employees, many being parents of
young children, to companies that offer flexible working arrangements including
part-time or teleworking arrangements, along with increased parental leave

Work-life balance is now a big issue in the City, with companies competing
for the best package. These packages go beyond the standard private medical
insurance and company car. Companies are now looking at emergency nursery
provision and care for elderly or dependent relatives, along with paid
sabbaticals and perks such as free late-night dinners and dress-down policies.

It is important, therefore, to ensure that the package is going to really
improve absence and turnover and that the employees will gain real value in
terms of improved lifestyle and health status. It may look good to offer
services such as massage and pedicures, but if the major cultural issues of the
organisation are not addressed then this could prove to be a costly exercise.

In some companies a psychologist will carry out a "culture
diagnosis" with the help of senior managers before embarking on a managed
programme of change. The OH professional can play a key role in helping to
identify areas of concern or work-life imbalance.

A work-life needs assessment

A work-life needs assessment is vital in order to gain an understanding of
the organisational issues and to frame the business case for work-life
initiatives. The assessment would involve meeting with human resources and
occupational health personnel and senior managers. A number of focus groups
would then be organised to involve employees at all levels in the organisation.
Demographic information would be required to identify the breakdown of male and
female employees, women of childbearing and child-rearing years and so on.

Occupational health data, such as reasons for absence, sickness, attendance
and so on, can also provide valuable insight into the state of the
organisation’s health.


The objectives of the needs assessment would include:

– Determining the nature of the business case for work-life balance.

– Identifying the major work-life issues, including childcare, elder care,
and work hours.

– Identifying how to attract and retain employees in the organisation.

– Recommending how employees and managers can be more effective both in
their work and personal lives.

Determining the business case for work-life balance

Each organisation must create its own culturally appropriate work-life
balance programme. City firms with a head office in New York or Tokyo must take
that into account and not simply adopt the policy of the parent company.

Major business concerns include retention, competitive advantage,
productivity and burn-out. Long hours, frequent travel demands and little
opportunity to take a break can all contribute to ill-health or increased staff

Generational expectations have shifted and there is now greater recognition
that both men and women in their twenties expect to live and work within a dual-career
family. Dual-career families are still small, and fewer women than men are
advancing to leadership positions in the City but this is likely to become much
more of a challenge to companies in the future.

Identifying the work-life issues

To conduct a work-life needs assessment the research can be carried out
effectively with the formation of focus groups, choosing at random a proportion
of male to female employees across the various business units at all levels of
the organisation. This is often best conducted by an external consultant with
whom employees can feel that they can speak freely and their anonymity ensured.

The concerns and issues that are raised may include long hours, travel and
the demands of the international markets requiring employees to respond to
customer demands until late in the evening.

Management support may be an issue, with managers being given inadequate
training in the work-life needs of their subordinates. Whereas flexibility is
seen as beneficial, in reality employees may worry that they may loose their
bonus or their job if they are not seen to be in the office.

Although it is now generally accepted that childcare provision must be more
accessible in the UK, it is still a fact that the demand for quality day care
far exceeds supply in London. However, the availability of childcare in the UK
is changing rapidly with the implementation of the Government’s National
Childcare Strategy2, which has allocated £8 billion of funding for new

Attracting and retaining staff

The war for talent has forced employers to accept that they must offer a
more attractive, flexible package and that people do not want to travel to work
in the City and work 18 hours a day. Now that women are expecting challenging
careers and young men and women are expecting to have dual-career families,
child care initiatives and retention policies for women are becoming very

Recommendations for improved effectiveness

The assessment would enable the organisation to position the work-life
effort appropriately but it would not provide on-going solutions. It would be
necessary to build a work-life task force of employees, managers, human
resource and occupational health professionals to create an on-going,
business-driven, work-life strategy.

This task force would then manage, measure and monitor the implementation of
programmes, practices, services and culture change. Additional senior
management interviews would increase interest and commitment to a work-life
strategy. It would then be necessary to communicate the key findings and
recommendations within the context of an awareness campaign and the business
case for work-life balance.

The role of the occupational health professional

The OH professional can make a unique contribution towards the design and
implementation of programmes that improve the health and safety of employees.
The production of regular confidential reports on occupational health
attendance rates, absence, accidents and in some cases, usage of an employee
support programme, can provide significant insight into the state of the
organisational health.

OH should provide evidence-based research to support the business case for
additional health and support services. For instance, if the number of
man-hours were calculated to assess time lost to attend appointments to see a
GP, physiotherapist or dentist then a good business case could be argued for
on-site services.

OH professionals can use the demographic data and results of the work-life
needs assessment to help design tailor-made training packages, particularly in
the area of stress management. It is accepted that stress is an integral part
of life, but it is important that it remains at a manageable level in today’s
rapidly changing world. Successful organisations adapt to change by finding
ways to respond positively to pressure and to develop better coping mechanisms.

The occupational health professional can be the driving force behind a
work-life strategy. By working with key personnel in the company it is possible
to make a real impact on the organisational culture, help the organisation win
the war for talent and help retain healthy and happy individuals.

Jane Parkin is occupational health manager at Bupa Wellness


1 Confederation of British Industry, Focus on Absence: absence and labour
turnover survey. CBI Publications, 2000
2 The Green Paper, Meeting the Childcare Challenge. HMSO, London, May 1998

Comments are closed.