Case Study: Awareness Raising – Dublin Bus, Ireland
Company / organisation name
Various provisions for working carers
About the company / organisation
Dublin Bus is the main public transport provider for the city and county of Dublin and neighbouring areas. It carries 150 million passengers each year and transports 70% of all public transport commuters into Dublin during peak times. Dublin Bus currently employs over 3,500 people and has a fleet of over 1,000 buses.
The company is required to operate commercially to the maximum extent possible whilst taking account of its public service obligations.
Dublin Bus provides a range of flexibilities and other supports for its workforce that can facilitate employees with caring responsibilities. The approach is not to have specific policies and supports targeted towards particular groups, such as carers. Rather, it offers inclusive provisions that are available to any employees who may be interested because of work–life balance, lifestyle or other factors. Nevertheless, carers have been identified as an important group that may have needs for work flexibility or other accommodations. Sources have included a survey of staff conducted in 2005 and employees’ day-to-day experiences of addressing needs. Carers are therefore given direct recognition and attention in the context of work–family and work–life balance supports.
The approach involves a mix of formal policies/provisions and more informal processes. It includes:
- flexible shift rosters;
- hours reduction (part-time working / job sharing);
- short or longer-term leave of absence (unpaid).
For some of the non-statutory arrangements, their availability in a given situation depends on their being compatible with the operational needs of the organisation. It is company policy that employees who avail of work–life balance arrangements will not be discriminated against and will be treated equally with other employees.
Dublin Bus has its own set of policies and provisions, alongside statutory carer’s leave and the provisions of Irish equality legislation (which addresses family status and carers).For example, special leave may be provided on a flexible basis when requested and with the agreement of the relevant manager/supervisor. Thistype of leave has been taken up by a number of carers. Career breaks may also be availed of (at the discretion of the company) for reasons such as study, childcare and eldercare.
Another very relevant measure concerns the recent extension of job sharing years to operational grades; this has proved useful for working carers. A clear demand for this was identified through a staff survey, coming not just from younger women with childcare responsibilities but even more so from men (who make up the majority of the workforce in the company). Need arose due to both childcare duties (like picking-up and minding the children after school) and for caring reasons (such as for an elderly parent or in some cases for a spouse/partner with long-term illness).
Requests for work flexibility, leave or other supports are generally made to the local manager/supervisor. To support this process, comprehensive guidelines, entitled ‘Managing People Guidelines’ have been prepared for managers and supervisors, covering both statutory and non-statutory entitlements for staff. These guidelines were developed in response to results from the employee survey. These findings suggested that substantial differences may occur across work locations (depots) in terms of how managers/supervisors responded to employees’ work–life balance needs. The introduction to the guidelines refers to carers, in a section about the difficulties employees may have in relation to work–life balance.
Dublin Bus also provides an employee assistance programme (EAP) service whereby employees can receive confidential support and counselling on personal or family matters. Where relevant, the service may suggest to an employee to request changes to improve their work–life balance, via the measures listed above. The EAP service also provides more general feedback to the HR department on the types of issues employees present with. This information is then used in improving the extent to which general policies meet these needs and issues.
Rationale and background of the initiative
Prior to its participation in the work–life balance project a few years ago, Dublin Bus already had a range of family-friendly measures in place, similar to those of other semi-state bodies. This project, however, triggered a new level of recognition of the needs of carers.Before this, the approach was an ‘old-fashioned’ one; the main focus was on younger employees with childcare responsibilities (especially women in clerical grades) and some clerical employees availed of job sharing and flexitime. Apart from statutory leave entitlements, a mostly informal approach was adopted, involving individual employees approaching to their local manager/supervisor when a need arose. The main provisions for bus drivers were the option of swapping shifts and taking leave. At that time, it was also apparent that some managers were more attuned to work–family balance needs and were generally more approachable than others.
The work–life balance project arose from a commitment in the organisation’s Equality and Diversity Plan 2003-2006 to explore work–life balance policies and to promote a model of good practice in Dublin Bus. An opportunity arose to take part in a funded project with a number of other employers. An external occupational psychology consultancy with expertise in diversity management was contracted to gather the views of managers, supervisors and trades unions. In addition, a survey of employees was conducted, with specially trained employees from each location involved in carrying out one-to-one interviews. A total of 30% of employees were included in the survey and this sample represented the three main subgroups of employees – operational (bus drivers and inspectors), maintenance and office-based workers. Bus drivers make up the bulk of the workforce and this was reflected in the profile of respondents. This was also the case regarding gender with men comprising 91% of those who took part.
The survey was felt to have been a very important initiative as, for the first time, it gave a systematic overview of employee needs and experiences regarding work–life balance. A number of key results emerged from the survey, as outlined below.
One important finding, already mentioned above, was the level of variation across work locations (depots), regarding managers’ knowledge and practice of relevant Dublin Bus policies. More generally, it was observed that there seemed to be some inappropriate use of force majeure leave (both over- and under-use). This indicated a need to overhaul the existing approach and practices in relation to leave. These factors prompted the preparation of comprehensive guidelines for managers and supervisors to ensure consistent and appropriate approaches to the provision of both statutory and non-statutory entitlements.
Another important, if unexpected, finding from the survey was a much stronger demand for work–life balance provisions among men than had been previously realised. The expectation had been that the main demand would be from (younger) women with children. In addition, there was much mention of caring for older relatives, alongside the more expected issue of childcare. Among bus drivers, a strong interest emerged in job sharing.
Prior to this, in addition to the perception of a low level of interest among (male) drivers, it was also felt that job sharing was not a feasible option for bus drivers. This was because of the nature of their work and the way operations and rosters are organised. There was also some reluctance on the part of the trades unions to accept part-time employment. Complications regarding the pensions system was also were also perceived as a barrier.
Against this background, the introduction of job sharing for the drivers represented a big step. A comprehensive proposal was prepared, addressing all relevant details, such as shift work and pensions. A pilot implementation process was organised with a specific focus on two groups – parents with childcare needs and carers of elderly or sick/disabled persons.
Apart from wishing to meet the needs of the workforce, the business case for work–life balance was also taken into consideration in developing the new initiatives.
Results and assessment
Both parents and carers have taken up job sharing, although the numbers to date are not very high. Limiting factors include the loss of income associated with reducing hours and the requirement to contribute up-front to one’s pension scheme.
Carers who have availed of job sharing have found it useful in various ways. As an example, some worked alternating weeks, enabling them to conduct their caring duties during their ‘off week’. Some carers have availed of the opportunity to take leave of absence for an extended period, one year for example, knowing they can return to their job at its end. Not all carers can afford the income loss associated with leave or job sharing. For them, the option of adjusting the time they start work and opting for a shift that best suits their caring responsibilities.
Hard figures are difficult to come by regarding the business case for work–life initiatives. However, experience from the pilot job sharing programme and since then has indicated the benefit of improved job satisfaction. It also seems to have reduced levels of absenteeism. The survey finding that employees took sick days when their work–life balance needs were not being met is also relevant. Better retention and thus avoidance of the (substantial) costs of replacement are also likely benefits. This can be especially important in the transport sector, where newer drivers have higher accident rates and experienced drivers are very valuable.
The issue of employee retention has become more complex with the economic downturn. However, job sharing may enable employee cost reductions whilst maintaining staff on a part-time basis. This would also avoid the costs of recruitment and training.
Finally, experience has shown that it is important that alternative working arrangements are agreed for specified periods. These should be reviewed and measured against business needs as well as the needs of other employees. Business needs place limits on the numbers that can be accommodated with such arrangements at any one time. If those who benefit from an alternative arrangement assume they can maintain it indefinitely, this can make it difficult to accommodate others when their needs become pressing.
Issues, challenges and lessons learned
The following lessons experience can be gleaned from the experience of Dublin Bus:
- an inclusive approach is helpful, as opposed to one that targets/is restricted to particular groups;
- it should not be assumed that such measures are only relevant for and of interest to women employees – more demand for work–family balance measures was found amongst men than had been anticipated;
- flexibility can be successfully introduced, even in occupations that might initially appear to unsuitable for this;
- it is important to consider the business needs of the organisation as well as employees’ needs;
- set out all issues clearly in an agreement to be signed by all parties (employer, trades unions and/or employee representatives), as this played an important role in the successful implementation of the measures;
- review the situation regularly to ensure it is working for all relevant parties, including the business;
- ensure fairness in facilitation of access, and this should involve including review processes for those currently availing of flexibility provisions, in order to be able to give space to consider requests from other employees;
- regularly update managers and supervisors with information on managing flexible working.
Case study authors:
- Kevin Cullen, WRC;
- Sarah Delaney, WRC;
- Ciaran Dolphin, WRC.