Policies must benefit all staff, not just the parents

Work to live, or live to work, the Government wants more employers to adopt work-life practices for all – including those who do not have children.

For the politicians charged with addressing the issue of work-life balance, 7 September was a busy day. At the Department of Trade and Industry, Stephen Byers was launching what was billed as a national debate on the subject. “If we are to remain competitive in this modern economy, it is essential that we have an open debate about how we can help parents balance work and the responsibility of being a parent,” he reasoned.

At the Department for Education and Employment, Margaret Hodge, minister for employment and equal opportunities, was launching the results of a survey of 7,500 workers. Her message was that “everyone, not just parents, wants to get a life” (News, 12 September).

While pedants might sense mixed messages, some long-standing campaigners for greater employer understanding of the needs of parents in the workplace regard the campaign as both welcome and tactically very sensible. “We recognise that work-life balance is going to work best within the workplace if everyone can benefit,” says Sue Monk, chief executive of Parents at Work.

“Whenever we talk to HR directors, there is far greater interest in work-life balance than family friendly policies. It makes it more do-able.”

After all, some recent press attention has sought to portray family-friendly personnel policies as divisive. A survey published in July by Management Today magazine and work-life balance consultancy Ceridian Performance Partners found 55 per cent of managers believe childless staff resent family friendly policies.

Yet other campaigners, while applauding the Government’s involvement, believe there can never really be parity between leisure and caring responsibilities, be they for children, elderly relatives or people with disabilities.

“Long-hours culture and presenteeism are widely resented, but in terms of corporate social responsibility, we do not think you can give equal weight to playing golf and caring for someone,” says Madeleine Starr, employment project manager for the Carers’ National Association.

Dean Mahoney, spokesman for the National Family and Parenting Institute, adds, “Work-life balance is not exclusively the domain of parents, but the problems of raising a family while doing increasingly demanding jobs are more persistent and every day.”

There are signs that these tensions are already being addressed by employers.

Sainsbury’s, which features as a case study in the Government’s guide to creating a work-life balance, has been running a huge variety of different programmes within a work-life strategy for two years now – with the family-friendly bits firmly ensconced within the umbrella of the whole scheme.

“We aim to look at it in terms of life-stages,” says Carolyn Gray, head of HR policy. “People require different support at different times of their career, but there is no doubt that the programme has satisfied both the needs of the business in terms of flexibility and been very popular.”

The firm runs a range of different benefits, including enhanced maternity pay, paternity and parental leave, career breaks, adoption and fostering leave, leave for fertility treatment, time off for emergencies, paid bereavement leave, nursery facilities (in London), part-time, flexible working and job-share, as well as breaks to care for the elderly and study breaks.

As the DTI concentrates on parents, the DfEE is taking up work-life balance on behalf of everyone. Its campaign to encourage more employers to take up flexible policies has been running since March and comes at a time of complicated and conflicting attitudes to the subject.

While long-hours culture is seen as unproductive and often unnecessary, it is not solely slave-driving bosses who are behind it. Some people like working long hours – at least for a part of their lives. Soho twentysomething media whizz-kids favour a seamless blend of work and life.

But according the Association of Graduate Recruiters, work-life balance is becoming a significant player in graduate career choices, and a major factor in becoming an employer of choice.

And then there are legal aspects. Lawyers have consistently argued that failing to consider a request from a female worker for a part-time role could breach equal opportunities laws.

As a result, the Government’s guide aims to be “a celebration of success”. It avoids being prescriptive, seeking to encourage employers to consult employees to find arrangements that work best for mutual advantage and setting out different options.

Work-life balance strategies can comprise the location of work (office or from home), when people work (flexitime, compressed hours, annualised hours, shift swapping or self-rostering), time issues (job-sharing, going part-time, or overtime) or be to do with breaks from work – for a short period, or for a longer absence. Then there are options to do with offering choice and security such as childcare schemes, health and fitness facilities, financial packages or savings schemes.

It features nine case study organisations: Huber and Suhner, which manufactures energy and signal transmission products, Bristol City Council, Lloyds TSB, Dutton Engineering, King’s Healthcare NHS Trust, Classic Cleaners, Sainsbury’s, Motorola and Listawood, a firm making promotional magnets and mouse mats, all of which have introduced assorted flexible working options.

At Lloyds TSB, Work Options, launched in March 1999, aims to be a recruitment and retention tool. In essence, the scheme works by employees initiating a request which they do not have to justify and the managers trying to meet it, as long as it does not affect the business. Managers retain the final say, but the firm is open to all suggestions including working part-time, job-sharing, term-time working, compressed hours or teleworking. The reason for it is irrelevant, although managers have the final say.

The result has been a 6 per cent increase in flexible working arrangements. A total of 93 per cent of applications were approved, 15 per cent from men.

• Creating a Work-Life Balance: A good practice guide for employers is available from DfEE Publications, tel: 0845 6022260 (Quote reference WLBGPGE1).


The Government’s work-life checklist for employers


  • Recognise that effective practices benefit both organisation and employees

  • Acknowledge individuals work best when they achieve an appropriate balance between work and all other aspects of their lives

  • Highlight joint responsibility to discuss workable solutions

  • Develop appropriate policies and practical responses that meet specific needs or an organisation: fairness and consistency, valuing employees for their contribution to business, monitoring and evaluation

  • Communicate commitment to work-life strategies

  • Demonstrate leadership from top and encourage managers to lead by example.

Source: DfEE Creating a Work-Life Balance: A good practice guide for employers


Facts and figures


The DTI says:

• 63 per cent of families had two wage earners in 1996, compared with 46 per cent in 1983

• Employment rates for lone mothers have increased only marginally in 15 years: from 42 per cent to 44 per cent

• 67 per cent of women return to work within a short time of childbirth


Source: DTI Work and Parents: Competitiveness and Choice


The DfEE says


  • 19 per cent of employees want to work part-time – with or without caring responsibilities

  • 21 per cent would like to work an annualised hours scheme

  • Among those without caring responsibilities, 34 per cent would like a compressed hours system (four-day week) compared with 37 per cent of carers

Source: DfEE Survey on Worklife Balance


By Stephen Overell

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