EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Work–life balance policies benefit working parents

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A new study suggests that Danish labour market regulations tend to favour working parents. Other types of working carers have fewer entitlements, despite recent demographic changes and political efforts to mobilise women and older workers, and to encourage families to take a more active role in caring for elderly people. The study examines how the work–life balance needs of different types of employees are addressed in Denmark, and compares the Danish regulations with those in other countries.

Regulation of work–life balance

Work-life balance policies in the workplace are regulated through a mix of collective agreements, legislation and guidelines for good practice in Denmark, with collective agreements often allowing for more extensive entitlements than the law. The various work–life policies include flexible working hours, long and short-term leave schemes and a range of policies which specifically aim to retain older workers and parents in paid work. Employees’ rights and entitlements to these policies tend to differ, depending on their family situation, workplace and the sectoral agreements in place. Indeed, the work and care packages available to Danish carers other than parents often lags behind the more extensive policies available to parents.

Differing work–life balance policies in workplace

Both parents and other types of carers have access to various leave schemes in Denmark. However, leave entitlements available to carers other than parents often appear to be stricter, less flexible and less generous than those open to parents. For example, parents’ entitlements to maternity, paternity and parental leave are defined as specific rights in the collective agreements and the law. Other types of carers only have the right to request access to carers’ leave, as their entitlements are subject to needs testing according to the assessment criteria of the Social Service Act (1998). In addition, a range of collective agreements offer parents full pay during maternity, paternity and parts of parental leave. In contrast, most sectoral agreements only grant carers other than parents the statutory pay when qualifying for carers’ leave. The few exceptions include sectoral agreements within the public sector at local government level and the financial intermediation sector, which offer these employees full pay if they fulfil the assessment criteria stipulated by the Social Service Act.

The fact that parents enjoy more extensive rights than employees with other caring responsibilities is also reflected by the finding that it is mainly parents who have rights to short-term leave with full pay when their child is ill. Nevertheless, some sectoral agreements, such as those concerning the industrial and financial intermediation sectors, also grant all employees an additional number of paid caring days, which can be converted into pension contributions or used for training purposes. Other workplace policies, such as the social partners’ and government’s maternity redistribution fund and local agreements on family and older workers, also tend to mainly address parents’ work–life balance problems. In fact, the work–life balance issues of carers other than parents are not even considered in the strategies which seek to retain older workers in paid work. Danish employees’ access to flexible working hours, weekend, evening and part-time work are arranged through local or individual agreements and depend therefore on the employer’s discretion, indicating that parents receive no special attention in this respect in the law or through collective agreements.

Comparisons with Finland, Portugal and UK

The emphasis on parents, which largely fails to recognise the needs of employees with other caring responsibilities, is not only a Danish phenomenon. Other European countries such as Finland, Portugal and the United Kingdom (UK) also offer different treatment to parents and employees with other caring responsibilities. In fact, Finnish, Portuguese and UK labour market regulations fail to an even greater extent than Danish regulations to recognise the work–life balance needs of carers other than parents – although all employees have a right to absence for compelling family reasons in all four countries, as is stipulated under EU law. For instance, Finland, Portugal and the UK do not offer carers other than parents paid carers’ leave. Similar to Denmark, these three countries do provide relatively generous leave schemes for parents. Indeed, Portuguese maternity pay appears to be more generous than that in Denmark, Finland and the UK: in Portugal, all working mothers receive full pay on leave, while the statutory compensation rate in the other three countries, particularly in the UK, is much lower. Moreover, some Finnish collective agreements, similar to those in Denmark, offer full pay during maternity, paternity and parts of parental leave; Finland also has the most generous leave schemes for parents in terms of length.

These national differences suggest that working carers are treated differently across the four countries. One interesting provision in Portugal is that grandparents are offered a ‘grandchild leave’ arrangement; furthermore, the state grants all carers a specific set of statutory and unpaid caring days. Nevertheless, in general, parents usually enjoy more generous leave rights, and other workplace policies also seem to reflect this priority. Finnish workplace policies, for instance, largely fail to recognise the specific work–life balance problems of working carers, although part-time work is a right of carers receiving homecare allowance. In Portugal and the UK, different sets of guidelines for good practice aim to help all types of carers, and British carers of adults also have, similar to parents of small children, the right to request flexible working. Such rights are only available to parents in Finland and Portugal, although some Finnish and Portuguese companies offer flexible working hours to all employees. This suggests that employees’ rights and entitlements to work–life balance policies vary depending on their family situation, workplace and country of origin. Nonetheless, recent initiatives by governments and the social partners in the four countries indicate a slight change of policy, where carers other than parents are increasingly becoming part of the policy debate.

Recent social partner and government initiatives

Recent debates within the Danish media and among politicians, the social partners and other key stakeholders suggest that families’ work–life balance is emerging as a growing concern. Once again, however, it is primarily the caring difficulties of working parents which are at the centre of the Danish policy debate, while carers other than parents are rarely a topic for discussion among the Danish social partners and government officials. The relatively few examples recently discussed include the three proposals of the Work and Family Commission (2007), which concern statutory paid caring days for carers other than parents, time off for grandparents to care for their sick grandchildren, and the establishment of time-saving accounts over the life course. These proposals received mixed reactions from the social partners. Employers, in particular, were highly critical of the proposals; the trade unions were also sceptical, especially in relation to the idea of time-saving accounts.

Despite the low profile of working carers other than parents in recent welfare debates, it appears that Denmark’s social partners and politicians expect the issue of carers of older people, in particular, to rise on the policy agenda over the next few decades, due to an ageing population, increased pressure on Danish elder care services and labour shortages. The first signs of this are reflected in the recent proposal of the Danish Minister for Social Welfare and Gender Equality, Karen Jespersen. Minister Jespersen proposes that the family takes a more active role in caring for elderly people and suggests that this should become a legal obligation. Nevertheless, the proposal faced opposition from both left and right-wing political parties, which to a varying degree argued that a legal obligation will reduce the female workforce, send women back into the home and is an attempt to privatise the Danish elder care sector and cut costs (see news report (in Danish), 10 April 2008). Some politicians also argued that it should not be part of the government’s remit to legislate on caring responsibilities, although such legal obligations exist for families with children.

Recent debates in Finland and the UK also reflect how the issue of working carers other than parents is rising on the government’s policy agenda. In Portugal, meanwhile, which is often classified as a very family-orientated welfare state, the subject of carers other than parents was hardly discussed in the recent welfare debates, according to national government officials, trade unions, employer organisations and key stakeholders. However, the Portuguese government’s increased investment in child and elder care suggest a slight change of discourse. On the other hand, Finland and the UK, unlike Denmark and Portugal, have a long tradition of debating the role of carers in general as part of their long-term care policy.


The substantial packages of work–care policies available to working parents through labour law and collective agreements stand in sharp contrast to the relatively poorly developed and often patchy policies available to working carers other than parents. Although Denmark, Finland, Portugal and the UK have different welfare regimes, they all appear to favour parents while paying relatively less or no attention to employees with other caring responsibilities in their national labour market regulation. Nonetheless, some Member States, particularly the Nordic countries, have to a varying degree well-established and universal domiciliary services and institutional care, which offer indirect support to carers other than parents. The availability of publicly funded elder care is, however, limited in southern Europe, despite recent investments; at the same time, only relatively poor people in the UK can receive free home-based and institutional elder care.

Trine P. Larsen, FAOS

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