EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Case Study: Care-related supports, Steiermärkische Sparkasse, Austria


Organisation Size: 
Large (250+)
Public sector
Initiative Types: 
Leave-relatedHours reductionWork adjustmentsHealth/wellbeingCare-related supportsawareness raising

Company / organisation name

Steiermärkische Sparkasse (Savings Bank of the Region of Steiermark)

Initiative name

Work and Family Audit (Audit Beruf und Familie) at Steiermärkische Sparkasse

About the company / organisation

Steiermärkische Sparkasse is the regional savings bank of the region Steiermark. It mainly provides financial services to the area, but also runs a network of subsidiaries in a number of south–east European countries. In Austria, the bank employs about 1,650 employees across 168 branch offices and regional centres. Women make up just over one half (54%) of the workforce.

The bank is in heavily engaged in a range of social issues and has in place a collective agreement on family-friendly policies. It actively promotes the employment of older people. A further guiding principle relates to the provision of equal opportunities for women across all aspects of the company’s activities.

The initiative

The bank offers employees a range of measures to enable them to reconcile work and personal responsibilities. This issue has become visible in recent years, and today working carers benefit from the options and services outlined below.

Flexible working time: employees can choose between a wide range of flexitime and part-time options, including flexibility in starting and finishing times, staggered hours, compressed working weeks, annualised hours, and working time accounts. In practice, eligibility for individual models must be agreed upon with the line manager, as feasibility may depend of the nature of the job position.

Special leave for palliative care ( Hospizkarenz): the company actively encourages employees to make use of palliative care leave, which is a statutory right defined by national legislation.

Extension of long-term leave: the right to three months of (unpaid) family leave is guaranteed by national law, and is often by employees with elderly dependants. Under special circumstances, unpaid long-term leave can be extended according to needs, without relinquishing dismissal protection.

Short-term leave: in order to deal with situations of crisis, national law gives employees the right to five days of (paid) carers leave. This is actively encouraged by Steiermärkische Sparkasse. The company also offers employees the option of taking their holiday leave earlier than planned, in cases of need.

Flexible organisation of work: supervisors are advised to offer their staff the option of job sharing, as well as a flexible distribution of tasks, with a view to addressing practical challenges of work–care reconciliation.

Awareness raising initiatives: the company actively informs employees about options available to aid the reconciliation of work and informal care, and encourages take-up of these options. This is done by the inclusion of the issue in manager training, the publication of articles in the company magazine and on the employee portal on the intranet, as well as through various other channels

Training seminars on care: the company offers a series of seminars on ‘care of [elderly or disabled] dependents in the family’ to all employees as well as their partners. The seminar consists of modules on the importance of care in the family, recognizing signs of illness, and providing assistance with issues such as personal care, communication and mobilization.

Training course in palliative care: awareness about the issue of elderly care is also fostered by offering employees the option of doing a formal training course in palliative care, fully paid for by the employer. The course lasts for two semesters (one year), with training sessions taking place on Friday afternoons and at weekends on company premises.

Competence point for women and family related issues: this was set up to offer a central point of contact for obtaining information, as well as practical advice on issues such as care service providers in the region.

Information portal in addition to an existing portal that deals with questions of interest to employees with young children, a separate portal has been created, which is explicitly targeted at working carers. Each employee has direct access to the portal via the bank’s intranet.

Practical support: employees experiencing caring-related financial hardship can obtain assistance grants and, more often, a loan with very favourable conditions. The company also helps employees in accessing professional care services, again at very favourable rates. In addition, a grant is provided in the event of the death of an employee’s spouse.

Reintegration programme ( Wieder-Einstiegs-Programm, WEP): this programme offers support to employees re-entering the company after a period of leave. Assistance is provided in the form of training, seminars, career planning support, and the option of working conditions that are tailored to the person’s needs, as a parent or working carer.

Continuity of contact: during periods of leave the company seeks to maintain regular contact with the employee. Relevant measures include mandatory participation in work related training, voluntary engagement in project work, invitations to leisure time events such as work parties, subscription to the corporate newspaper, as well as the option of ‘minor employment’, namely paid work for a small number of hours per week.

Networking: during periods of leave, working carers are invited to network with other employees in the same situation, in order to exchange experiences and to socialise. Twice a year, a reintegration information event takes place with the intention of allowing employees on leave for this specific purpose. These events also give these employees the opportunity to discuss any leave-related issues of interest with HR representatives.

Rationale and background of the initiative

The ambition of supporting employees in balancing work and care responsibilities has been an integral part of the company’s HR strategy for a long time. There is a widespread consensus among company staff, including top management, that employees who feel that their needs and preferences are fully taken into account – especially with regard to their ability to reconcile their job with responsibilities within the family or in charitable work – will be better motivated and more productive.

The bank is eager to communicate this message to its customers. More than ever, market success for financial services involves building and sustaining trustful relationships. This is also why it works so hard to ensure its employees feel valued.

Establishing a company culture in which employees feel free to openly discuss their family-related needs is considered a long-term and evolving process. It is particularly relevant that management (including the chairman of the board) explicitly endorse measures that improve work–life balance and allow employees to reconcile work with informal care-giving. This has greatly contributed to the removal of taboos around the issue of working carers and their specific needs. It also makes it easier to convince line managers of the need to give full support to working carers, even if this is associated with practical challenges.

The company also makes specific efforts to address stereotypical gender views which might act as barriers to work–family reconciliation. Male employees are actively encouraged to take leave or to make use of other options that allow them to take a stronger role in family responsibilities.

Last but not least, initiatives to promote active ageing are playing an important role in the company. A dedicated project on active ageing was carried out recently, which has resulted in a number of measures targeted at older workers. For example, special training measures have been designed for older employees, tailored to the needs and preferences of those aged over 50 years. Training programmes relate to health, well-being and work–life balance. They comprise lectures, seminars, workshops, individual counselling and sports programmes. The company’s employees and their families can also avail of free preventive check-ups and vaccinations at favourable rates.

The works council is fully supportive of the company’s policy for fostering work–family balance.

Results and assessment

The Steiermärkische received the basic Family Friendly Enterprise Certificate in 2004 from the family and work (berufundfamilie) initiative, and the full certificate in 2007. This means it was among the first companies in Austria to engage in this process. Based on the initiative of the same name developed in Germany, the Austrian family and work audit acts as a consulting instrument, allowing employers to examine their family orientation and take specific measures to improve it. Companies who undergo an assessment of their current status regarding work–family balance, and who set up a progress plan in areas defined by themselves over a specified period of time (usually three years), are awarded a basic certificate. A full certificate is given to companies who have carried out a second assessment, reviewed achievements against plans, and agreed upon further steps to be taken in the coming period. Traditionally, measures have been targeted towards issues related to working parents. In recent years, however the audit instruments as well as measures implemented by participating companies have included the specific needs of working carers.

The Steiermärkische’s commitment to the work–life balance of its employees is now having a positive impact on its ability to attract staff with scarce skills on the labour market. Participation in the family and work audit, in particular, has contributed to the positive public image that Steiermärkische enjoys in the region.

No formal cost–benefit analysis has been carried out. This is because the initiatives have their origin not in strategic considerations about corporate social responsibility (CSR) but in a firm focus on employee wellbeing. The employees are seen as the most important resource of the bank by far, one that needs to be nurtured. This involves treating employees as human beings with manifold interests and responsibilities, and not just as workers.

Take-up of palliative care leave in the company has increased over time and is now at a level which is considered to adequately reflect the demand of employees.

The company feels that the main benefits of offering tailored support to working carers are:

  • lower labour turnover, which means lower recruiting costs;
  • a better working atmosphere;
  • less absenteeism (both negotiated leave and sick leave);
  • increased productivity;
  • a smooth and efficient process of reintegration following a period of leave;
  • improved social skills among employees drawn from their experiences as a family carer;
  • fairness and reciprocity leading to a win-win situation, with the employer’s support causing the employee to be more prepared to seek solutions to day-to-day challenges at work.

Issues, challenges and lessons learned

A major lesson to be learned from the experience at Steiermärkische Sparkasse is that top-down initiatives are more likely to create the necessary conditions for a sustained change of culture than those emerging from the bottom. One of the reasons for this is that it is necessary to obtain the support from line managers. They often prove to be very resistant to giving employees more flexibility in adapting their working conditions to their own needs. If line managers realise that company management is firmly committed to promoting work–family balance for employees, they will be much more likely to be supportive of innovative measures for working carers and other groups.

Line managers also require support, in the form of effective training, easy access to relevant information sources and advice. They also benefit from suitable instruments and procedures to help them discuss and address family-related needs with employees.

Not all those who need to care for an elderly or disabled family member are willing to discuss the issue with their supervisor. This was one of the main intentions behind the online portal that was recently set up on the company intranet. It provides employees with a selected list of information sources in order to allow them to quickly, effectively and anonymously find the information they need. This can be of vital importance in the period directly following the moment when a close relative suddenly becomes dependent on care.

The company, as a regional savings bank, has strong ties with practically all major stakeholder groups within the region. It has used this strength to promote work–care reconciliation and to network among different groups. For example, the company’s instruments and procedures for assessing and optimising work–family balance are being made available to other employers.

While awareness of the need to foster work–care reconciliation still appears to be the exception rather than the rule in Austrian companies, the Director of HR in Steiermärkische Sparkasse (interviewed for the present study) is optimistic that the situation will improve markedly over the next few years. Younger managers are much more likely to consider it natural for women to participate in the labour market as much as men do, and that care-giving within the family must not prevent individuals from being employed.


Case study author: Karsten Gareis, empirica GmbH, Bonn


  • Johann Mehrl, Head of Human Resources, Steiermärkische Sparkasse, conducted on 14 December 2010.
  • Liselotte Palz (formerly a working carer), Appointed Representative of Women's Interests, Steiermärkische Sparkasse, conducted on 14 December 2010.

Online sources:

Written material (not available online):

  • Printout of online resources targeted at working carers, available via the company’s intranet

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