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Work-life balance

Not simply about complying with the law; it's finding the employees' needs and priorities. Think about how to meet their needs while maintaining consistent workings with the needs of the business. Employers are increasingly concerned to protect their reputation and 'employer brand'. Work-life balance policies are important for employers to identify commitment to quality of life and social responsibility.

Work-life balance can be defined as
  • Being aware of different demands on time and energy
  • Having the ability to make choices in the allocation of time and energy
  • Knowing what values to apply to choices
  • Making the choices
Why should employers be interested?
The world of work changes constantly. Today's 24-hour/7-day society and customers expect services at times to suit them. Increasing amounts of people juggle responsibilities at home, in the workplace and during other activities. When employees are asked about work, the two concerns emerging most frequently are long hours and work intensity.

A survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development shows that:
  • Three out of four people say they are working very hard, with many feeling they working as hard as possible and cannot imagine how they could work any harder.
  • One in five people take work home almost every day now that technology developments have enabled us to be always contactable.
  • Despite this overlap between home and work, only 33% of workers say their employer has any family-friendly practices or personal support services in place.
Who benefits?
Work-life balance discussions mainly focus on the 'family-friendly aspect' of childcare and the problems faced by people with all aged children. Placing all the emphasis on this area is too narrow a focus and can alienate some employees as it is not only children who are dependent on others. In the UK, several million people already act as carers for elderly and/or disabled friends or family. Employees may have commitments within the community, or want time to travel, study or engage in leisure activities.

Another common misconception is that work-life balance is just for women. Many men stand to benefit from work-life balance policies in their roles as fathers, partners, or dependants. Society benefits because stronger, stable families provide good adult role models, fewer broken relationships resulting in a reduction in crime and other anti-social behavior.

The business case
The benefits when introducing policies to underpin work-life balance issues:
  • Higher productivity and competitiveness
  • Increased flexibility and customer service, for example to cover for absence and holidays
  • Raised morale, motivation, commitment and engagement
  • Reduced absenteeism
  • Improved recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce
  • Becoming an 'employer of choice'
  • Meeting legal requirements
Additional costs and responsibility may be incurred in adopting policies to support work-life balance, including increased managerial workloads. The costs are generally outweighed by the gains in the achievement of strategic objectives. The biggest obstacle in implementing good practice seems to be the difficulty of persuading individual line managers to accept more flexible working arrangements. This resistance is often based on assumptions that turn out to be unfounded.

What should employers be doing to help improve work-life balance? There is no 'one size fits all' pattern of work-life balance practices. Because employer lifestyle and needs differ, employers must offer practices that appeal across the board.

Offer more flexible work patterns, such as
  • Part-time working
  • Variable working hours
  • Job sharing
  • Working from home
  • Term-time-only working
There is often a gap between the offering and take-up of flexible working practices. Give consideration to career development issues that concern employees.

Offer extended leave and other time-off arrangements. Periods of extended leave, whether paid or unpaid, are neither appropriate for, nor sought by, large numbers of employees. But they can be beneficial in particular circumstances.

Offer other forms of leave, such as
  • Career breaks for carers
  • Sabbaticals
  • Study leave
  • Secondments, typically within a career development programme but also as a community support act
  • Emergency services in case or rescues, wildfire etc.
Offer other forms of support, for example:
  • Employee assistance programmes
  • Financial services e.g. subsidised insurance or loans
  • Loans or allowances to help pay for childcare
  • Workplace facilities such as crèches or medical centres
  • Encouraging 'wellness' to improve health
  • Staff Gymnasium
  • Good relaxation areas
It's the law
Work-life balance provisions, much of it driven by EU directives, were significantly extended in April 2003 to cover:
Annual leave. All employees are entitled to a minimum of 20 days paid annual holiday.
Working time. The working week is limited to 48 hours, averaged over 17 weeks, for employees who have not 'opted out'. The Working Time Regulations also provide for minimum rest periods and make special provision for night work.
Parental leave. There is a right to 13 weeks unpaid parental leave for men and women at any time up to the child's fifth birthday. This must be taken in blocks or multiples of one week, with 21 days notice given to the employer.
Time off for dependant care. The right to take unpaid time off to deal with family emergencies (eg concerning an elderly parent, partner, child or other person living as part of the family). Maternity leave. New mothers are currently entitled to 26 weeks maternity leave. Employees who qualify are entitled to an extra 26 weeks additional maternity leave, making 52 weeks in total. It is unlawful to dismiss anyone on the grounds of pregnancy or childbirth, and contracts of employment continue during all periods of statutory maternity leave.
Paternity leave. New fathers are currently entitled to 2 weeks paid paternity leave, which can be taken as a single block of one or two weeks within the 56 days following the child's birth.
Adoption leave. Employees adopting a child are entitled to 26 weeks ordinary adoption leave and 26 weeks additional adoption leave. Only one parent may take adoption leave: if they qualify, the other parent may take paternity leave.
Right to request flexible working. Employees with children under 6 (under 18 if disabled) can request a change in their hours, time or place of work. The employer can refuse such a request on specified business grounds but must follow a detailed procedure.
Part-time work. Part-timers are entitled to the same hourly rate of pay and the same entitlements to annual leave and maternity/parental leave on a pro rata basis as full-timers. Part-timers must also have the same entitlement to contractual sick pay and no less favourable treatment in access to training.

Flexible working policies and other work-life balance practices are now the norm in workplaces, spreading out from larger organisations and the public sector. The key issue is how to implement and operate those policies in practice, to create a positive and supportive culture, and to deliver the potential benefits they offer, both in terms of competitive performance and employee well-being.

Adapted from the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development's publication on working time.
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