Ten minute tutorial – work-life balance

Simon
Kent takes us on a step-by-step guide through the practice of work-life balance.

What
is it?

With
its roots in ‘family-friendly’ working schemes, work-life balance is an
approach to enhancing the effectiveness of employees. Rather than imposing an inflexible
structure on them – specific working hours, location and so on – work-life
balance schemes promote flexibility.

By
giving employees more control over how they work, and consequently what they do
outside of work, the organisation secures greater employee satisfaction and
improvements in staff productivity and retention.

Work-life
balance schemes also allow organisations to recruit from a wider pool of
people, including the older workforce and part-timers.

The
story so far

Work-family
programmes were introduced to satisfy employment legislation in Scandinavia,
but Professor Cary Cooper at Umist believes the concept of work-life balance
took off in the UK as working practices became ‘Americanised’.

The
combination of work pressure and job insecurity at the end of the 1980s cranked
up the working hours, while increased communications technology, the internet
and the mobile phone, meant many workers found themselves tied to their desks
for most of their waking hours to the detriment of family and personal life.

The
DTI’s Work-Life Balance 2000 Baseline Survey, found 51 per cent of
employees felt they ‘don’t have enough time to build relationships outside
work’, while 30 per cent agreed their health was suffering because of their
work.

In
addition, the past 10 years have seen women enter the workplace in huge
numbers, and the resulting ‘dual career’ households require increased
flexibility in order to contribute anything to the workplace.

As
work-life balance initiatives have grown, the options for flexible working have
expanded, with organisations now offering opportunities such as flexible hours,
homeworking, sabbatical leave, time off in lieu, and compressed working hours.

The
promise

A
happier, healthier workforce is a more productive and effective workforce. The
Quality of Working Life Report
, published by the Institute of Management in
2001, found 41 per cent of managers felt the quality of their working life had
deteriorated over the past three years. The aim of a good work-life balance is
to overcome this.

At
the same time, there are benefits for recruitment and retention. US guru and
author of Managing Generation X, Bruce Tulgan, has said that large
sections of today’s workforce are not motivated by the work ethic and will
therefore seek out employers that offer flexibility.

In
1999, research by Ceridian Performance Partners found that more then 40 per
cent of senior managers were likely to look for a new job within 12 months,
representing a major cost for employers.

The
DTI believes that work-life balance maximises available labour and makes
employees feel valued, while the Institute of Employment Studies has calculated
that small businesses can save up to £250,000 by using family-friendly work
policies.

Pros
and cons

Implemented
correctly, work-life balance means an organisation can access employee skills
at a time when the employee is motivated and fully able to contribute to the
company.

However,
flexible working arrangements can cause problems, whether through administration
issues – what happens if everyone opts to take time off at once? – or employee
perception. Flexible working to allow for childcare, for instance, may be seen
as discriminating against single or childless employees, so the initiative must
be equal for all.

Imposing
flexibility can de-motivate some employees. They may enjoy office life and the
structure it gives them and resent working fewer hours or different shifts. If
employers wish to encourage homeworking, they must ensure adequate resources are
provided, such as dedicated phone lines and effective communications
technology. Even then, there may be objections to bringing a bit of the office
into the home.

Who’s
on board

Lloyds
TSB was one of the first companies to introduce a scheme, but now work-life
balance is being addressed in countless organisations – from Bristol City
Council to P&O and Sainbury’s.

The
TUC has created a comprehensive eight-stage guide for employers to follow,
reflecting the extensive work the unions have carried out with employers in
this area. The DTI has also provided funding for initiatives through a
Partnership and Challenge Fund.

HR
contribution

Work-life
balance initiatives involve all areas of an organisation since flexibility must
not compromise overall business performance. At the same time, as there is a
clear need for a partnership approach between employer and employees, HR has a
role to play in finding out what employees want and finding ways to meet these
needs.

According
to Sally Russell, principle consultant with RightCoutts Consultants, effective
work-life balance initiatives begin with analysing workforce needs or problems,
and then introducing flexibility to address those aspects, rather than simply
offering flexible working options and hoping they will be taken up.

Verdict

There
is significant research illustrating how work can damage an employee’s
performance and health, along with anecdotal and case study evidence to suggest
work-life balance can enhance the performance of individual employees and therefore
the company as a whole. Gathering empirical evidence is more problematic.
Either way, work-life balance initiatives will only be successful if they are
introduced in partnership between the employer and the employees.

Key
players:

Umist’s
Cooper continues to do research in this area, as does his consultancy, RCL.
Catherine Hakim at the LSE, and Suzan Lewis at Manchester Metropolitan
University, also carry out research. Work-life balance concerns have switched
from the DfES to the DTI, reflecting the growing emphasis on the business case
for companies.

Web
sites:

www.dti.gov.uk/work-lifebalance
– support, case studies and news of funding
www.tuc.org.uk/work_life/index.cfm
– for links to TUC resources, case studies and guides
www.daycaretrust.org.uk
www.ceridianperformance.com
www.lifeinnovations.com – the
website of Family Care and Workforce Diversity Consultants

Essential
Reading

Beyond
Work-Family Balance: Advancing Gender Equity and Workplace Performance
, by
Rhona Rapoport, Lottle Bailyn, Joyce K Fletcher, Bette H. Pruitt
Managing your Career, Family and Life, by C. L. Cooper and Suzan Lewis
Work Family Challenge Rethinking Employment, edited by Suzan Lewis and
Jeremy Lewis
Work-Lifestyle Choices in the 21st Century – Preference Theory, by
Catherine Hakim
Changing Times: TUC guide to work life balance, TUC publications

Useful
contacts

DTI
Work-life Team: 020 7215 6249
TUC: 020 7467 1294
Ceridian Performance Partners: 020 7479 2000
RightCoutts: 020 7839 1001
The Work-life Balance Trust: 020 8789 0136

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