EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Case Study: Awareness Raising – District Administration Rhein-Hunsrück, Germany

About

Country: 
Germany
Organisation Size: 
Large (250+)
Sectors: 
Public sector
Initiative Types: 
Leave-relatedHours reductionWork adjustmentsCare-related supportsawareness raisingCo-operation with external agencies


Company / organisation name

Kreisverwaltung (District Administration) Rhein-Hunsrück

Initiative name

Work and Family Audit (Beruf and Familie)

About the company / organisation

The Rhein-Hunsrück region is a large area in the Hunsrück Mountains in Rhineland-Palatinate. It is most well-known for its small Rhine riverside, including the famous Loreley Rocks where the valley is at its narrowest and is difficult for freight ships to manoeuvre. The region has 104,000 inhabitants and most of it is rural. The biggest city is Boppard with a population of 16,000.

As a regional public authority (Kreisverwaltung) at NUTS 2 level, the organisation has major administrative functions as stipulated in the German constitution. A total of 250 of the authority’s staff are located at the main office in Simmern. A large share of the workforce is engaged in clerical work.

Like most of the other German regions that can be characterised as peripheral, the Kreis Rhein-Hunsrück is at risk of selective out-migration and gradual loss of competitiveness. For these reasons, there is a strong intention to increase the attractiveness of the region by offering high-value and efficient public services, both to companies and the general population.

The initiative

The provisions offered to working carers comprised all of the rights which were later granted to all German employees as part of the national legislation on work and care (Care Time Act). They also included the following provisions that go far beyond legislative rights:

  • very flexible working times, wherever possible;
  • working time accounts, with the option of accumulating overtime and saving holidays for use at a later time;
  • part-time working arrangements according to the preferences of the employee, including weekly working hours of less than 20 hours;
  • inviting employees on care leave to participate in training programmes or to enrol in further education courses;
  • A number of employees acting as care pilots, with the role of providing individual support for working carers, such as arranging residential care;
  • long-term leave according to the needs of the working carer, whereby length of leave can be negotiated, in special cases reaching involving unpaid leave for periods up to, and even exceeding two years.

Agreement with the works council was sought regarding all key issues, such as the use of working time accounts.

In 2006, a number of home-based telework places were set up as an additional option for persons with care responsibilities, to help them reconcile their work and care responsibilities. The objective is to offer this to all employees who wish to avail of this option, on condition that their work can be feasibly carried out through teleworking

For operational purposes, working carers are defined as employees who provide care to a person living within the same household and who requires nursing. A medical certificate is required in order to be eligible.

The company has given a lot of attention to the training of supervisors. Experience has shown that knowledge of issues related to care-giving tends to be quite limited among those who have not as yet faced the situation. Care-giving to disabled and/or older relatives is still treated as a taboo issue. This means it takes a lot of time to create an organisational culture in which employees become willing to talk about being a working carer, in particular in discussions with their supervisor.

In any case, supervisors and the HR department are instructed to seek a solution which is tailored to the individual’s needs. For example, in one case a working carer, who had already taken long-term leave, requested a few weeks of additional leave following the death of the person under his care. This employee felt he needed some more time off to recover from the stressful experience. Such a situation is not addressed in the national legislation. However, the Kreisverwaltung took every effort to facilitate this request, as both employer and employee clearly benefit from workers being in good mental health.

Rationale and background of the initiative

In the context of the process of modernisation of public authorities in Germany, the 1990s brought a stronger focus on clients as well as on employees. At least on paper, workers benefited from greater flexibility in choosing working time arrangements that suit their needs. In addition, a debate arose on how to improve work–life balance. In practice, however, substantial barriers remained for employees who sought flexibility as a means to better reconcile work and family obligations. The working culture in the public sector continued to be dominated by the traditional model of full-time, nine to five hours, and permanent employment relationships.

Against this background, in 2003 the Rhein-Hunsrück authority was the first out of 301 Landkreis districts in Germany to develop their own policy on work–life balance. For this purpose, the government-supported ‘work and family audit’ was chosen as a means to assess existing provisions, and to identify measures required to improve them. The decision was triggered by the active interest of the chief administrative officer (CEO), who had listened to a presentation about the work and family audit at a conference. The audit process requires an annual report about progress achieved and targets set, as well as an assessment by external experts in every third year.

The first practical step was to conduct an employee survey and to take stock of existing provisions that could have some bearing on work–life balance. The assumption was that employees would ask for practical supports such as childcare facilities. However, the survey results suggested that the most pressing need was for more flexibility. For example, while national legislation gives employees the right to ask for a reduction of up to 50% of normal working hours, some employees expressed a preference to work even fewer hours.

Discussions with supervisors quickly revealed an unwillingness to allow greater flexibility, as they feared this would make it impossible to guarantee minimum levels of service provision.

In response, training programmes were introduced to raise awareness among supervisors about the issue of work–life balance. Some practical incentives were introduced to make it attractive for supervisors to employ workers for less than 20 working hours per week. Moreover, the CEO intervened personally by inviting recalcitrant managers to explain why granting more flexibility would be unfeasible.

In 2005, the specific needs of working carers were highlighted when an employee complained that her needs were not being addressed in the same way as those faced by staff with young children. Indeed, prior to 2006 the work and family audit instrument had not included measures for working carers. This may have been partly responsible for the lack of attention the issue received.

In response, a decision was made that all provisions offered to employees with young children aged under 12 years should also be available to working carers. It also agreed that a number of targets would be set related to working carers in the context of the auditing process.

Working carers still face a relatively low level of understanding among co-workers and managers regarding their personal situation, when compared with those with childcare responsibilities. It is the ambition of the Kreisverwaltung Rhein-Hunsrück to overcome these matters in the coming years.

Results and assessment

Between 2006 and 2008, six working carers received individually tailored support by means of flexible working hours, short-term and long-term leave.

As of yet, there have been no attempts to conduct a financial cost-benefit analysis of the initiatives, as all stakeholders agree that the benefits are plain to see.

The Kreis Rhein-Hunsrück was the first regional public authority to be awarded with the work and family certificate, which has resulted in extensive press coverage. It can be assumed that this has significantly helped to promote the region as one where much emphasis is placed on family friendliness and work–life balance.

The authority also benefits from a high level of job satisfaction and employee motivation. Feedback from the staff show that the flexibility offered to optimally reconcile work and family responsibilities is perceived very positively. It is of particular interest that not only working carers themselves, but other employees as well have voiced satisfaction with and gratitude towards the initiatives. The latter group have realised that they would also benefit from this support, should they experience caring responsibilities in the future.

Rates of employee retention have also improved.

Issues, challenges and lessons learned

One major challenge is that of overcoming the practical matter of replacing staff members who require care leave for an emergency situation. In practice, it will be easier to find a solution acceptable to all concerned if employees are fully aware of the issues surrounding work and care. The greater the awareness of the issue, the more willing staff will be to help each other, especially if they understand that everyone could face this issue. Experience shows that when a team is willing to find a workable solution, they will succeed in doing so.

There is no doubt, however, that it will become increasingly difficult to replace staff on care leave. This is because organisations are becoming more and more likely to be operating to full capacity, and certain skills are growing scarcer on the labour market.

The experiences at the Kreisverwaltung Rhein-Hunsrück suggest that one person who takes an active interest in the reconciliation of work and care responsibilities can make all the difference. In this case, the CEO drove the agenda, and who, through personal experience, understood the challenges related to work and care very well.

In a letter to all supervisors regarding the introduction of performance related pay, the CEO noted that employee evaluation should in no way discriminate against working carers. This is just one example of the ways in which the CEO regularly intervenes in order to maintain and further develop the organisation’s commitment to work–life balance.

There is wide consensus in this public authority that changing the organisational culture of an organisation must be considered a long-term process. This is especially so in the public sector, where structures tend to be more persistent than in the private sector. Only the ongoing commitment of all major stakeholders to the issue will lead to real progress.

Sources

Case study author:

  • Karsten Gareis, empirica

Interviewee:

  • Michael Gutenberger, Personal/Organisation/EDV, Kreisverwaltung Rhein-Hunsrück, conducted on 29 April 2010.

Online sources:

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