Government calls for better work-life balance

Research published in November 2000 under the UK government's "work-life balance" initiative finds that long and inflexible working hours contribute to poor health, family life and productivity. Ministers have made renewed appeals to employers to consider more "family-friendly" working, on business as well as social grounds. Trade unions, however, are sceptical, arguing that "sensible regulation" is needed to help workers deal with the pressures of the modern workplace.

The Labour government's "work-life balance campaign" was launched in March 2000 by the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and the education and employment secretary, David Blunkett. Its objective is to encourage employers to introduce flexible working practices to enable employees to achieve a better balance between work and the rest of their lives, in turn contributing to lower absence and staff turnover and better productivity. The major elements of the campaign are:

  • the setting up of Employers for Work-Life Balance, an independent alliance of 22 leading employers committed to working in partnership with government to promote good practice on work-life balance issues;
  • a new GBP 1.5 million "challenge fund" to help employers explore how work-life balance policies can help them deliver goods and services more efficiently and flexibly;
  • producing information and advice materials, including a special website;
  • ensuring that the government sets a good example as an employer; and
  • conducting research, including a baseline study.

Ministers hailed the initiative as an example of policy partnership between business and government, and were keen to stress its voluntary appeal. Mr Blunkett said "this is about imagination, not legislation," and Margaret Hodge, minister for employment and equal opportunities, emphasised that "work-life balance is about sheer common sense and good practice in management". Yet research conducted on behalf of the Department for Education and Employment (DfEE) shows that there is still some way to go to convince employers.

Research results

In November 2000, the government released the initial findings of a baseline study of 7,500 employees and 2,500 employers carried out for the DfEE by Warwick University's Institute for Employment Research. These indicated that long working hours remained common and that employees' demands for flexible working time were not being met. Four in five workplaces had employees working more than their standard hours, with two in five of these workers doing so without extra pay. One in nine full-time employees worked over 60 hours every week. Evening and weekend scheduling was also common. One in eight employees reported working both Saturdays and Sundays, and one in five worked for companies open round the clock.

The minister for employment and equal opportunities commented that employers are "willing to deal with the consequences, not causes, of poor work-life balance". Provision of stress counselling was much more likely than help with childcare. She added: "the long hours culture is alive and kicking. We are all working too long hours, which is making us ill, less productive and is not supporting family life."

Further research findings, from a separate study of small firms (Family-friendly employment: the business case report) demonstrated how increased efficiency and profitability could result from implementing "family-friendly" policies. Ms Hodge said: "This research dispels the myth that only large employers can afford to be flexible. Every single business in the study reported strong business benefits from offering flexible working arrangements which recognise that employees have a life and responsibilities outside the world of work ... The result is literally money in the bank for businesses: reduced casual absence, better staff retention, easier recruitment and improvements in morale, commitment and productivity."

For the government, the gap identified in the two reports - positive benefits, but poor practice - demanded more publicity and practical advice. Ms Hodge said: "We need to get this message across loud and clear to all businesses - large and small. Everyone benefits from good practice in this area - parents and carers, children, businesses, the economy and society. The government is committed to bringing together business and families to promote a work style that both raises business productivity and creates healthier, happier families."

Union views

In September 2000, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) released results from its own research (Work smarter - an end to burnout Britain) to underline its case for "sensible regulation to tame the modern workplace". These indicated that nearly half of full-time workers enjoy their jobs but report that at times they cannot cope with the pressure of work. The report said that: "This pressure in the modern workplace is reflected in two main ways. First long hours and unpaid overtime and secondly stress ... But it is not just an issue for carers. Indeed the poll shows that the proportion of those who like their jobs but complain of too much pressure does not vary with age in the way you would expect if it were a particular problem for those with young children. These findings make a powerful case for new protection for people at work to deal with the modern problems of excessive working hours and stress."

Union leaders indicated that the answer to the problem was twofold. First, "rogue employers" were unlikely to cut long hours unless there were changes in the law. TUC general secretary John Monks said that many workers had been coerced into "opting out" of the Working Time Regulations 1998 in order to continue working excessively long hours, and that existing regulations needed to be tightened to stop this happening (UK0001150F).

Second, and perhaps more fundamentally, the TUC report claimed that: "Dealing with the problems of the modern workplace is not simply a matter of increasing legal protection for people at work - although the Working Time Regulations show they can make a difference. There needs to be a change of culture, better work organisation and more effective managers as well. What is needed most of all is the spread of partnership relationships at work. Dealing with work/life balance issues is high on the agenda of many existing partnership arrangements."

The TUC suggest that partnership is preferable to legalism, especially with "an understandable wish on the part of the Confederation of British Industry and others to limit the growth in the number of individual tribunal cases. The TUC acknowledges this concern and wants to see regulation where possible introduced through effective social partnership arrangements as happens in a number of other EU countries with mechanisms for agreement and enforcement. The alternative to bad regulation should not be no regulation, but good regulation."

In practical terms the TUC wants the government to: endorse the draft EU Directive on national information and consultation rules, in order to help build high-trust relationships (EU0012285F); end the provision in the Working Time Regulations which allows workers to "opt-out" of the 48-hour limit on the average working week; introduce paid parental leave; and grant mothers a right to return to work part time after maternity leave (UK0101106F).

Commentary

"Work-life balance" has been a matter of debate in one form or another for some time in the UK, fuelled by long working hours and limited public childcare provision. Government concern to promote access to employment for previously excluded groups such as single mothers has also pushed the issue. However, surveys still identify problems to do with long and unsocial working hours in the UK, and employee frustration and stress from pressures at work.

Political concerns about mounting "red tape" and lobbying by business groups has contributed to weak "family-friendly" legislation so far (UK0011199F). Parental leave remains unpaid, for example, and the effect of the Working Time Regulations is limited by various opt-outs and other flexibilities (UK0001150F). By the end of 2000, only 13 improvement notices relating to the Working Time Regulations had been issued by the Health and Safety Executive. No prosecutions have been brought, though one local authority has initiated proceedings over health assessments for night staff. Arguably, the biggest impact has been in respect of holiday entitlement, where 416 employment tribunal decisions have been reached.

Most employers are therefore resisting the government's case for what remain largely unfamiliar family-friendly policies. These may be seen as too risky on cost grounds given the harshly competitive environment most organisations find themselves in. Most employers are also willing and able to resist union overtures for "partnership", which can look very different at workplace level than from the offices of the TUC (UK9906108F). Perhaps the biggest stimulus to change in the near future will indeed be the law – not just from statute but from the growing body of personal injuries litigation relating to workplace stress. (J Arrowsmith, IRRU)

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