Vordingborg Municipal Home Care, Denmark: Flexible working practices
A project originally aimed at senior employees in the Vordingborg Municipal Home Care organisation has led to flexible working practices for all employees.
The case study comprises experiences and practices in a district of Vordingborg Municipality in southern Zealand. Up to the end of 2006, the district was an independent municipality, but it is now incorporated into a larger conglomerate of four municipalities under the name of Vordingborg Kommune.
Currently, the home care district 'Midland' employs about 100 staff, all women. The average age of the workforce is 42 years, with 25% being 50+ years and under 10% 60+. The work involves personal and cleaning services to clients, referred by a visitation officer.
Few employees stay with the organisation until the official retirement age of 65. Usually they retire between the ages of 60 and 62 on early retirement benefit. The explanation for this is partly because of the physical demands of the work, but also, more importantly, because of the mental stress involved. Varying working hours, different and changing clients, and unplanned overtime at short notice (caused by illness among staff) are the principal reasons for early retirement of the home care staff.
The early exit of senior employees results in two obvious problems for the organisation: the immediate need for new staff and the need for experienced colleagues to act as mentors to younger members. Guidance from qualified, experienced seniors is essential for a quick and smooth integration of new employees and their possible permanent employment.
Social dialogue is held through formal discussions and negotiations with the local representatives of the two trade unions involved in the area (i.e. professional nurses and other nursing staff).
Good practice today
In 2002, the former manager of the Vordingborg Municipal Home Care service observed that the average age of the staff was quite high, that many retirements could be expected within a short period and that consequently immediate action was needed. In addition, absence through sickness was quite high for some employees, indicating that older workers were suffering from too great a burden of physical work, a view that was supported by the safety representatives.
In light of this, the manager drew up a project aimed at retaining senior staff by creating or adjusting jobs that would give them gratification through working in an optimal way, thus resulting in 'happy' employees and also the retention of a skilled and able staff in the home care services. This was to be achieved by the following means:
- Creation of new jobs for senior employees, in agreement with management, employees and the seniors themselves. Adequate training and education facilities would be provided.
- Preparation of a catalogue of feasible positions within specified job categories as a means of inspiring the forthcoming interviews with senior employees.
- Making it acceptable for employees to choose a senior job career path by adjusting their work situation to the optimal effect of their capacity all through their working lives.
- Improving the communication skills of managers, thereby improving their ability to turn vital organisational changes into win-win situations for all.
To achieve these ends, a training project was set up with external assistance, paid for by the National Labour Market Authority under a special scheme of senior consultancy. Initially, managers attended a 2-day course at which all issues related to retaining senior employees were reviewed and possible solutions discussed. Immediately after this, all staff members aged 55+ were given a corresponding course, examining issues of senior careers, their own personal futures and opportunities within the municipal home care service.
The outcome of this project was somewhat different from that intended. The actual achievements were:
- a clarification of the framework and some ideas on the contents of a policy for senior employees;
- a plan for future appraisal interviews, including decisions of senior career development, retirement, etc;
- the decision that all employees aged 60+ should be offered senior seminars for the exchange of ideas and a gradual development of a catalogue for future reference.
Unfortunately, these plans were put on hold due to the merging of the four municipalities into the new Vordingborg Kommune.
The policy for older employees, however, is still in force within the framework of the general personnel policy. Appraisal interviews and career decisions are still based on the same values for senior employees as for all other staff, namely:
- cooperation based on trust, openness and dialogue;
- experience of possibilities of personal and professional development;
- community rooted in individually adjusted working conditions;
- working life characterised by equality and diversity.
Consequently, the efforts to retain senior staff are based on the utilisation of these possibilities to the fullest extent, focusing on two main elements — flexible working hours and prevention of damage to health. The scheme applies to all staff, regardless of age (the rationale being that without a healthy and an enthusiastic staff all of the time, there will be no senior employees left to retain). Thus, all staff are offered individually adjusted working hours, on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. But since there is no extra funding for such schemes, all reductions of working time are financed by the employees themselves; only the flexibility is offered. In spite of this — and in spite of a general agreement on an arrangement consisting of part-time work, part-time pay, but full contribution to pension funds — the local agreement works.
The health prevention programme is based on agreements and rules for occupational safety, overseen by a special task force consisting of occupational therapists and physiotherapists. All staff have been advised to take care of themselves and to avoid situations that might endanger their health. Lifting clients was emphasised in particular. Formerly, it was considered a sign of weakness or laziness to ask for assistance in lifting a client under treatment; today, it has been declared a dismissable offence to lift a client alone or to refuse assistance when called upon. No-one has yet been dismissed for this reason, but the rule does stress the importance of staff taking care of themselves and their colleagues in order to avoid early retirement due to physical and mental disabilities.
Plans and practices in the area are pending the outcome of the political process of the merging, adjusting and harmonising of the policies and practices of the formerly independent municipalities.
Contact: Helle Hansen, District Manager