Managing the work-life balance

The management of the "work-life balance" has become an increasingly important issue in Ireland in recent years as a result of various changes in the social and economic context. The pressures associated with dealing with the conflicting demands of work and personal responsibilities has generated increased worker interest in "employee-friendly" working arrangements. Employers, meanwhile, have begun to pay increased attention to the management of the work-life balance in response to recruitment and retention problems in an economy that is moving towards full employment. We review the situation in 2000.

The Irish social and economic context has changed considerably in recent years. In particular, while the Irish economy was burdened with mass unemployment and poor performance during the 1980s, there has since been very strong economic growth. The expansion of the economy has resulted in continual employment growth and a substantial reduction in unemployment - from 12% in 1996 to 4.3% in August 2000. An important feature of this employment growth has been the considerable increase in the number of women entering the labour force, particularly in the expanding service sectors. In 1999, 47% of women of working age were in the labour force.

The pressure generated by strong economic growth has meant, however, that many workers are finding it increasingly stressful to reconcile the conflicting demands that exist inside and outside the workplace. Inside the workplace, the pressure to work longer hours, the need to cope with new work practices, and higher customer expectations, have placed increased stress on many workers. Outside the workplace, many people are finding it difficult: to provide care for children and other dependents; to commute to work because of rising traffic congestion and inadequate investment in the public transport infrastructure; and to find enough time to develop their personal lives. These dual pressures are increasingly creating a desire for workplace arrangements which help workers to achieve a more satisfactory "work-life balance".

Some employers have began to pay more attention to policies to manage the work-life balance, particularly where they are experiencing problems with recruitment and retention. An important consequence of the substantial increases in employment and reductions in unemployment - as well as the structurally embedded nature of residual "core" long-term unemployment, the declining birth rate, and a levelling-off of the increase in labour force participation by women - is that the demand for workers is exceeding supply. The labour market has tightened considerably, and there is increased evidence of labour and skill shortages across many sectors of the Irish economy (IE0006152F). As a result, some companies have been concerned with devising new methods to attract and retain workers. Thus, the pressures emanating from economic growth are acting as the driving force behind the introduction of "work-life balance" initiatives.

Work-life balance initiatives

Work-life balance initiatives have been defined in a recent report from Ireland's Equality Agency ("Investing in people: Family-friendly work arrangements in small and medium-sized enterprises - work-life balance in the new millennium", H Fisher, Equality Agency, Dublin, 2000) as "the range of work arrangements, both formal and informal, that exceed the statutory minimum and which assist employees to combine employment with their caring responsibilities and personal life outside work". This definition is broader than the more common focus on the balance between work and family/caring responsibilities. This, according to the report, is because it potentially encompasses all employees who want to achieve a better balance between their work and outside interests, regardless of whether they have a family to look after or caring duties.

Work-life balance initiatives may encompass a whole range of initiatives, including:

  • special leave and career breaks. Some employers may provide various forms of special leave and career breaks for workers. This may include educational leave, career breaks, maternity leave, parental leave and bereavement leave;
  • part-time working. Part-time hours of work may be arranged to suit both the employer and employee;
  • flexi-time. This enables workers to adjust or personalise their working time;
  • compressed working week. The employee works the full number of hours on a reduced number of days a week - for instance, 38 hours over a four-day week;
  • job sharing. This enables two or more workers to share one full-time position;
  • homeworking or teleworking. This enables workers to balance their work and home commitments and cuts out the difficulties associated with commuting;
  • childcare support. The provision of childcare centres is crucial for working parents;
  • term-time working. This is potentially very useful for parents who cannot find adequate childcare during school holidays; and
  • annualised hours schemes. Such schemes set out the average hours employees are expected to work at normal rates of pay over the period of a year. The number of hours per day, week etc may vary within stated upper and lower limits, so that working time arrangements are responsive to peaks and troughs in demand. Annualised hours schemes often facilitate reductions in working time through lower overtime levels. They allow extra work to be accommodated in return for extra time off in lieu when demand contracts.

Many of these initiatives are recommended in the current national agreement, the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF) (IE0003149F). A "national framework for family-friendly policies" has been established under the PPF to "support and facilitate the development of family-friendly policies at the level of the enterprise". It is stressed in the PPF that "policies to support childcare and family life are a cornerstone of future social and economic progress." It is suggested that the challenge is to "find ways of developing approaches that reflect the reality of the workplace. Identifying different options that have the potential to meet the many diverse needs of different employers and their employees is especially problematic. In order to be effective, such options must meet the following objectives: enhance the opportunity to reconcile work and family life; and contribute to the effective and efficient operation of the enterprise."

Specific objectives contained in the PPF include: increasing childcare places in both the private and community sectors; increasing out-of-school-hours childcare services provided by community groups and school management; and further national fiscal and social policy measures to reconcile work and family life. This last objective involves the promotion of family-friendly policies at enterprise level, such as job sharing, parental leave, flexi-time, homeworking, and term-time working. Many of these recommendations overlap with those contained within Ireland's National Development Plan (NDP) (IE9911146F) and the National Action Plan (NAP) on employment (IE9905137F).

In addition, recent legislation such as the Parental Leave Act 1998 (IE9806251N), the Working Time Act 1997 (IE9712111F), and the Employment Equality Act 1998 (IE9909144F), provides a floor of statutory rights relating to family-friendly/work-life balance issues.

At this juncture, although there has undoubtedly been an increase in the adoption of many of these work-life balance initiatives, they are still relatively uncommon, being largely confined to the public sector and large private sector organisations. For instance, career break and job-sharing schemes are primarily found in public sector organisations such as the civil service, while annualised hours schemes are primarily found in large manufacturing organisations. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may not be able or willing to provide the same range of policies as larger organisations because of more limited resources. More often than not, few SMEs go beyond the minimum statutory requirements, although there are signs of increased activity in the SME sector in response to the tightening labour market. The recent Equality Agency report referred to above includes the findings of a survey of work-life balance initiatives amongst 133 SMEs. The main conclusion of the survey is that 53% of respondents stated that they provided one or more family-friendly policies. The most common initiatives were emergency and special leave, part-time working, flexible hours and flexi-time. These initiatives were more common in medium-sized enterprises (50-249 workers) than in small enterprises (1-49 workers).

Mutual gains for employers and workers?

Where policies to improve the work-life balance have been introduced, they may potentially generate "mutual gains" for both employers and workers.

Potential employer benefits include: the recruitment of new staff and the retention of valued existing staff; reduced absence; increased morale and commitment; reduced overtime levels; increased productivity; and a better corporate image. Some of these benefits are more tangible than others.

Potential employee benefits include: an opportunity to achieve a better balance between work and their interests and responsibilities outside work; less stress and pressure; and greater equality of opportunity.

Commentary

The issue of the management of the work-life balance has become increasingly important for the social partners and the government as a result of the substantial changes in the Irish social and economic context in recent years. Many workers are now finding it difficult to balance the conflicting demands of work and their lives outside work. A crucial issue is that "traditional" forms of work organisation may often no longer be suitable for accommodating the varied lifestyles of the modern labour force/potential labour force. To this end, measures to improve the work-life balance, such as childcare support and various forms of employee-/family-friendly flexible working (eg job sharing and flexi-time) have become increasingly popular amongst many workers.

At present, however, new forms of employee-friendly flexible working are not very common in Ireland, particularly outside the public sector, although there are some signs that this is gradually changing. At present, the "flexibility agenda" is still largely geared round employer concerns for cost reduction and productivity improvements. Many employers still view employee-friendly policies as being outside their sphere of responsibility and/or an unnecessary cost on business, rather than as a potential means of improving motivation and productivity. However, some employers have been forced to address the work-life balance issue because they have found it increasingly difficult to attract and retain workers in a tightening labour market. In an economy that is moving towards full employment, employee-friendly working arrangements represent a potential means of competing for and retaining labour and skills, which in many instances have become a scarce and valuable resource.

In addition to recruitment and retention problems, employers' actions are largely driven by other "bottom-line" economic considerations associated with the perceived benefits and costs of a particular initiative. Rather than imposing costs on employers, it may be the case that improvements in the management of the work-life balance may potentially generate "mutual gains" for employers and workers by improving business performance while accommodating the needs of workers. Employers may benefit from lower absence and labour turnover and increased commitment and productivity, while employees may benefit from less stress and increased opportunities to address their personal responsibilities and interests. Moreover, measures to improve the management of the work-life balance need not involve any extra costs or resources. Indeed, the development of greater trust levels through open and informal means of accommodating employee responsibilities outside work may be just as important as more formal policy action for generating "mutual gains". (Tony Dobbins, UCD).

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