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Work and life: why aren’t we improving the balance?

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UK employees aren’t taking up their work-life balance options, even though government and employers want greater flexibility in working hours and many employers are offering it, without legislation, as a means of motivating and retaining valued workers.

A new report: “Work-life Balance: Beyond the Rhetoric” from the independent Institute for Employment Studies, looks at why progress hasn’t been quicker. Director Richard Pearson said: “Work-life policies don’t just kick in automatically. There are significant management, cultural and communication issues to resolve. A good employer will want the business benefits. Therefore they will want to know why take-up is less than demand, and how they can provide the necessary leadership for change.”

In spite of the general recognition that there are health and productivity gains to be made, not to mention an end to long hours culture and absence problems, the IES research found a gap between the demand and take-up by employees of work-life options. Sally Dench, IES Senior Research Fellow and author of the report, explains: “Rights to time off and flexible working practices are rarely enough. A change in culture and attitudes within the organisation is necessary for the successful implementation of work-life balance practices. Both individuals and their managers need support to overcome real barriers. If senior managers are serious about promoting work-life balance they need to take a more proactive stance; it rarely happens without positive leadership from above.”

According to the report, other conditions are required for organisations to achieve success in work-life balance:
– the culture of the organisation must support, not deter employees from achieving the balance they need
– managers must learn how to operate with teams that incorporate varied working patterns
– employees must know what they can ask for and how it can work.

1. Culture
A number of factors deter individuals from taking up the opportunities available, in particular, organisational cultures in which traditions of working long hours and ‘presenteeism’ are entrenched. Attitudes of managers and colleagues can create adverse pressure, reinforced by the perceived impact on career prospects. Heavy workloads can also make the idea of flexibility seem impossible.

2. Management
Individuals and their managers need easily accessible information on the acceptability of different practices and what works in different situations. Individuals and managers often need support on how to adapt successfully to a different working pattern, and how to deal with unexpected problems. Managers need to learn how to manage teams working a range of working patterns and how to ensure that workloads are suitable and deadlines are met.

3. Communication
There was often scope for individual employees to ask for a range of options that would suit their circumstances, but this was problematic for employees and managers who did not know what was possible. There is considerable latent demand for provision which enables employees to balance their working and non-working lives, but many employees did not realise change was possible.

Case-studies
Case studies were conducted in six organisations known to be proactively engaged in implementing work-life balance practices. In-depth interviews and focus groups with HR and line managers, and employees were combined with a questionnaire survey of employees. There was evidence of employees with and without caring responsibilities working flexibly so that they could pursue non-work responsibilities and interests. This was reported to contribute to improved morale, commitment and performance and to lower labour turnover.

Provision for work-life balance was wide-ranging. They offered career breaks, extended maternity and paternity leave, adoption leave, time off for domestic emergencies, leave for community and volunteer work and a varied mix of flexible working patterns: compressed working weeks, term-time working, and flexi-time. Formal homeworking was less commonly offered, usually due to technological issues and management concerns.

The report is available form the Institute of Employment Studies.

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