EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Case Study: Care-related supports – Graz University, Austria


Organisation Size: 
Large (250+)
Public sector
Initiative Types: 
Work adjustmentsCare-related supportsawareness raising

Company / organisation name

Karl-Franzens University, Graz

Initiative name

University and Family Audit at Graz University, Austria

About the company / organisation

The Karl-Franzens University is one of the most respected universities of Austria. The third largest and second oldest university in the country, it was founded in 1585 by Archduke Charles II of Austria.

The university currently has 3,980 employees, about 50% of which are women. The workforce is comprised of two groups: academic staff and non-academic staff. The latter group includes service and administrative job positions. Two separate staff councils are responsible for the two groups of employees.

Graz University strives to promote the institution as an attractive place for internationally competitive scientists, and uses staff working conditions to do so. Advancement of women and reconciling work and family are established as essential aspects of the university’s strategic development plan.

The initiative

University of Graz has set up UniCare, an online portal explicitly targeted at university employees who are privately engaged in family care. The content of the portal was compiled by a group of experts under the leadership of the current Childcare Officer. Its development was directly informed by an in-house research project which explored the main needs and requirements of working carers at the university.

The portal contains information and recommended links on the following subjects:

  • including links to recent research reports, and to research organisations working on the subject;
  • for employees, such as related legislation (labour law) and statutory rights with regard to reconciliation of work and care;
  • for students (currently in preparation); and
  • about services from third parties, such as advice and counselling centres dealing with informal care, social service providers and welfare institutions.

UniCare is the only support measure that exclusively addresses working carers. However, the university also offers employees working conditions that are generally very conducive to work–family balance. These are summarised below.

Academic staff benefit from highly flexible working time options. ‘Management by Objectives’ has been established as the main way by which employees are managed. Timekeeping is done by self-recording rather than time attendance systems. Systems such as ‘glide time’ and ‘core time’ provide very generous rules. Generally, academic employees’ work schedules are mainly determined by their teaching obligations.

Non-academic staff have less flexibility in choosing working times because of the different nature of their job. Supervisors are instructed, however, to find individual solutions when an employee requires additional flexibility because of family care obligations.

Part-time work contracts, tailored to the needs and preferences of employees, are available.

Telework, whether from home or from any other suitable place, is established as the rule rather than the exception among academic staff. Employees have full access to the university computer network from anywhere.

Older employees receive support by means of a range of health measures, including special glasses for computer work, special sports programmes and access to advice from a doctor.

The various measures that support work–family reconciliation have been formally laid down in a collective agreement on the promotion of women (Frauenförderplan). This covers both academic and non-academic staff.

Rationale and background of the initiative

The reconciliation issue has been on the university’s agenda for more than 30 years. According to its mission statement, ‘equality, equal treatment and advancement of women are essential parts of Karl Franzens University’s profile’. Concrete objectives include increasing the number of women in all leadership positions, increasing the proportion of female students in postgraduate studies, and the promotion of women's and gender studies as a subject of research. Both the ‘Office for Coordination of Gender Studies, Women’s Studies and Promotion of Women’ and the Gender Advisory Committee have been set up to observe and foster progress in these goals.

Against this background, the university is engaged in a number of national networks for advancing gender equality, quality of work and work–life balance. For example, there is a network of what are called ‘children’s bureaus in place at all major universities in Austria. Their objective is to look after the special needs of employees as well as students with small children. At one meeting of the children’s bureaus, it was suggested that the network should get involved in the development of the ‘university and family audit’ (hochschuleundfamilie) in Austria.

The university and family audit draws on the experience of a similar audit system which has been in operation in Germany since 2001. It is an independent development, however, conducted by Kibis Work–Life Management in cooperation with five universities. This provider of work–family balance related consulting services is also active as auditor on behalf of the Austrian work and family audit. It has been developing the University and Family Audit in cooperation with the five universities who are piloting the certification scheme before offering it as a formal service to the remaining universities in Austria.

Graz agreed to become one of the pilot institutions participating in the development of the audit. Its review took place in summer 2011. The criteria catalogue created for the auditing process includes a section on the reconciliation of work and care (for elderly dependents or disabled family members). Responsibility for the audit process is in the hands of the Childcare Officer at the university's UniKid office. In doing so, the Childcare Officer can avail of the expertise of selected individuals within the university, for example from the HR department, from the Working Group on Equal Opportunities, and of course from the large number of research units. Representatives from the staff council have also participated in the audit project team.

The first encounter with the issue of work–care reconciliation occurred in 2008, when the Carers’ Careers Project (initiated by Volkshilfe, one of the major social welfare organisations in Austria) presented its findings at a national stakeholder seminar. As a result of internal discussions, the issue of work–care reconciliation was included, for the first time, in the standard employee survey that the university is obliged to conduct. The summer 2009 survey found that 20.3% of respondents were engaged in one way or another in care-giving to adult dependents.

These findings were presented to the vice-chancellor, which led him to initiate a one-year, university-funded research project. The study was entitled ‘Compatibility of family elder care with paid work in the context of the Austrian care policy: An analysis of the University of Graz as an employer’. It was conducted by one of the university’s professors and their assistant. It made use of qualitative research, mainly in-depth interviews, with a number of working carers employed at the university.

Results were discussed at a public workshop organised at the university in May 2010. As a first concrete outcome, the UniCare information portal went online in early 2011.

Results and assessment

As mentioned above, an in-house research project was carried out by the University of Graz to explore the challenges, needs and requirements of family carers who are also employees of the university. The study found that the issue of work–care reconciliation is still something of a taboo in the work context, in contrast to the more well-established issue of reconciliation of work and childcare.

The working carers who participated in the research suggested a number of activities which could be effective in improving their situation:

  • raising awareness among managers of the specific challenges faced by working carers, for example by means of internal events and lectures in the university;
  • creating an infrastructure for networking and exchange of experience between working carers (in the form of regular, professionally moderated ‘care circles’);
  • addressing working carers’ need for practical information and advice through the provision of a counselling service;
  • a right to care leave and crisis leave for working carers, independent of whether the carer lives in the same household with the dependant or not;
  • the promotion of flexible working conditions (through means such as telework and flexitime with reduced core time);
  • setting up a voluntary care-giver service by UniKid, comparable to the organisation of volunteer babysitters which has already been established.

As a first concrete outcome, the UniCare information portal went online in early 2011. The information portal will benefit employees who are faced with a relative or household member who is becoming dependent on care. This was developed because one of the main challenges identified by the study related to difficulties in obtaining advice and practical information (such as locally available care services).

The university expects to benefit both directly and indirectly from its involvement in the university and family audit. For example, the audit certificate will be used to promote the university as an attractive employer for highly sought-after researchers. In a situation where competition between universities is increasing, this is considered as an important advantage.

Issues, challenges and lessons learned

With regard to reconciliation issues, a university differs from most other employers in a number of ways. Firstly, at a university, reconciliation is an issue not only for employees, but also for students. Both target groups need to be covered by means of effective measures for improving reconciliation. At the University of Graz, both groups have been surveyed (separately) about their needs with regard to family responsibilities, including care for adult dependents. Before a survey assessing care-related needs is conducted, it is important that the organisation is committed to respond on its findings. Otherwise there is the risk that employees will become frustrated. The University of Graz has found that the employee survey worked well to raise awareness about the issue of work–care reconciliation among internal stakeholders. It also found that this has created momentum for the introduction of specific measures, such as the online information portal.

A second issue is that, unlike private sector companies, universities are subject to directives from the state on how to deal with reconciliation issues. Moreover, the Austrian universities are bound by a performance agreement with the Ministry which explicitly asks them to set up structures and processes for supporting work–family balance. This is a lever which the government can use to advance the issue of work–care reconciliation in the future, if it decides to do so.

Thirdly, many Austrian universities are conducting research about issues such as gender equality, work–life reconciliation and ageing workers. This can provide them with an empirical justification for acting on this issue. A number of professors and doctoral students at the University of Graz are conducting research which has some bearing on the reconciliation issue. This has acted as a catalyst for the improvement of available support measures.

A lack of funding for initiatives aiming to improve work–care reconciliation is seen as a major barrier. Participation in the audit process itself requires the input of an organisation’s own resources. In general, it proves to be easier in Austria to obtain such funding from federal (national) sources than at regional (Länder) or local (municipalities) level.

One of the key tasks for the near future will be to set up cooperation agreements and networks with local and regional providers of services for family carers.


Case study author:

  • Karsten Gareis, empirica GmbH, Bonn

Interviewee :

  • Monika Sträußlberger, Childcare Officer, Universität Graz, conducted on 11 February 2011.

Online sources:

Sources not available online:

  • Kreimer, M. and Meier, I. “‘Die Angehörigen wissen am besten was gut ist’ – Eine Analyse des Systems der familiären Langzeitpflege und dessen Auswirkungen auf die Lage pflegender Angehöriger”. 2011. Graz: Leykam. [Study results in book format]

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