EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Case Study: Hours reduction – Irish Civil Service, Ireland


Organisation Size: 
Large (250+)
Public sector
Initiative Types: 
Leave-relatedWork adjustments

Company / organisation name

Irish Civil Service

Initiative name

Support for working carers

About the company / organisation

The Irish civil service comprises the public officials who implement government policy agreed at national level. In addition, civil servants advise and assist government ministers in the running of their departments. Each government department has a permanent staff consisting of administrative, professional, specialist and technical employees.

The initiative

The Irish civil service places a lot of attention on work–life balance for staff and provides a variety of measures to support this. In addition to parents with general childcare responsibilities, working carers are explicitly recognised and supported as a group for whom work–life balance measures are also relevant. This is driven in part by the statutory context; carers are explicitly covered under Irish equality legislation and in the carer’s leave legislation, as well as in the statutory force majeure leave entitlements. In addition, its range of non-statutory policies and schemes include provisions of direct relevance for carers. These include:

  • work-sharing;
  • flexitime;
  • shorter working year;
  • a career breaks scheme;
  • special leave for domestic circumstances;
  • e-working/teleworking.

There is no formal definition of working carers for the purposes of targeting eligibility. The measures are aimed towards all carers, rather than towards specific kinds of carers. They are available to all employees, provided that the business needs of the organisation can also be met.

For the purposes of implementing work–life balance measures, each government department can be viewed as an employer in its own right. The ‘non-pay terms and conditions unit’ of the Department of Finance, in consultation with trade unions, initiates and circulates policy initiatives to all departments. It is the function of the personnel officer in each department to implement the policy initiatives.

Employees are regularly updated with a staff information booklet that includes measures and options available in relation to leave and flexible working arrangements. Employees can apply to their line manager and the personnel officer of their department in relation to them. There is general eligibility but decisions are worked out on a case-by-case basis subject to business requirements; flexible working arrangements are non-statutory initiatives offered by the civil service. In 2006, a review found that the majority of departments did not have a formal policy in relation to staff requests for work–life balance arrangements. Some dealt with requests on an ad hoc basis, while others used a more structured approach in determining how to grant or refuse applications.

Departments will try to facilitate requests and employees with carer needs are encouraged to work out a mutually beneficial arrangement. However, concessions from both staff and management are often necessary, including the possibility of moving staff to or from another unit.

Rationale and background of the initiative

Besides the evolving policy environment from Government and EU directives, the historical ethos and approach of the civil service itself is also relevant. Social partnership with unions has played an important role, involving the discussion and agreement of all proposed changes.

The need for greater equality for and representation of women in the civil service acted as an impetus for some initiatives. A report on gender equality, published in 1999, found it was a common perception among women that problems in balancing work and caring commitments would increase at higher grades. Among the lower grades of the civil service, approximately 18,000 employees are women and 10,000 are men. Among the higher grades of Assistant Principal and Principal Officer, 3,300 are men and only 1,300 are women.

The ageing profile of the workforce is another contextual consideration, particularly in relation to the ‘sandwich generation’ – those employees with diverse caring responsibilities.

A number of service-wide initiatives were implemented, as a consequence of the report published in 1999. These include the introduction of new work-sharing schemes that increase the number flexible working options available to staff. Such initiatives continue to be developed; the latest is one that broadens the ‘term-time’ scheme to a ‘shorter working year’ scheme. The aim here is to introduce a more level playing field for employees; prior to this, term-time leave was only available to staff with school-going children. The new approach brings more flexibility into the working arrangements for all staff. It also brings a reduction in costs.

Specific, concrete targets have not been set for the work–life balance measures introduced by the civil service. However, they have a clearly defined target of increasing the flexibility and attractiveness of working arrangements for all staff, particularly those with caring responsibilities. There is also a definite target to increase the representation of women in the workforce.

Results and assessment

Work–life balance working arrangements have become increasingly accessible to staff. Departments have also sought to address negative views of staff regarding the uptake of such arrangements.

In 2006, a review of work–life Balance was conducted. Its aim was to evaluate the benefits and burdens of family-friendly policies from the perspectives of employees. The main issues examined were: a) the implementation and effectiveness of the schemes, b) the uptake of schemes and c) gender and grade factors.

Figures for 2005 show that approximately 14% of staff availed of work-sharing. This was as high as 20% in some parts of the service, which is considerably higher than the incidence of work-sharing across all Irish employees. There were large gender differences, with the majority (over 80%) of work-sharers being female. There were also large differences in how the offer is taken up by the types of staff, with lower those at lower grade showing much greater uptake.

A similar pattern emerged regarding the take-up of other flexible working arrangements; the majority of those using flexible working schemes are women, at the grades of clerical and executive officer.

Overall, as one person noted, ‘it is no accident that the initiatives have helped to increase the representation of women in the workforce’; this was one of the aims, as part of an overall gender equality policy. For example, in 2000, representation of women at the level of assistant principal was 26%. By 2010, this had risen to 37.5%. By contrast, in the ten year period of 1987 to 1997, it had risen by only 1% (from 23% to 24%).

Since the recession began, there have been signs of a decrease in the number of people taking up work-sharing; some employees have sought to return to full-time working arrangements.

No research has been conducted on the extent to which measures meet the needs of working carers. However, many departments have reported that the main positive contribution of work–life balance schemes was the retention of good staff that might otherwise have had to resign. This was particularly with regard to those rearing families and those with caring responsibilities for relatives. To this extent, it seems clear that the initiatives meet the needs of working carers among staff.

An unexpected finding is the need for great flexibility in the range of work–life balance arrangements available to individual cases. For example, an employee might seek a career break to care for her sick husband in the expectation that this will make life easier for her circumstances. However, she may find the complete break from work does not make life easier, with the loss of structure and support provided by her employer adding to the difficulties. In such situations, a more suitable flexible arrangement may be worked out, subject to business requirements, which allows for a better balance of work and care that does indeed make life easier.

Issues, challenges and lessons learned

The experiences of the Irish civil service have confirmed that flexible working arrangements are an essential means of promoting equality, particularly gender equality, in the workplace. A key success factor is to ensure that a wide and flexible range of options is available. In this regard, it is reckoned that more than 44 different patterns of flexible working are being availed of by staff. A ‘pick and mix’ approach is used regarding the various measures available to facilitate and encourage staff to balance their diverse caring responsibilities. Over the years, the civil service has built up a huge wealth of experience to draw on in this regard. Flexible working arrangements were also found to be a ‘major carrot’ in attracting highly qualified staff. This is particularly so for people aged 30-40 years. During the ‘boom years’, when recruiting staff was less than easy, this was a big selling point. Even now, during the recession, it remains relevant.

Managing the wide range of work-sharing arrangements has been a major issue for government departments, although this trend has recently shifted. The civil service has often found it difficult to reconcile demand with the business needs of the organisation. Managers can find the implementation of policies challenging. They have difficulty prioritising applications and may feel pressured to approve applications for staff when similar applications have been approved in the past.

On the whole, smaller offices may find it harder to accommodate work–life balance initiatives. Often, the burden of work falls to a more junior staff officer, or to other staff within the unit, in addition to their general workload. In the past, some departments almost reached a saturation point for work–life initiatives, at which a cap may have to be placed.

The work–life balance initiatives in the civil service have been available for many years, giving rise to the need for a regular review of each individual arrangement. Reference is made to this when an application is granted; however, this does not tend to be followed up. A clear need is emerging to formalise review procedures, perhaps on an annual basis.

Without a strong review system in place, problems could arise. For example, employees may perceive that a work-sharing arrangement, once granted, is ‘there for life’. This could interfere with the provision of such arrangements to other staff with caring responsibilities. When caring needs change or diminish, the arrangement needs to be reviewed. This is in the interests of both the organisation and other staff who also have changing needs. Staff may need to be reminded that these are non-statutory arrangements, and that the needs of all staff and the organisation must be fully considered.

The approach the civil service towards meeting the needs of working carers is considered transferable to other organisations. The service receives many requests for advice in this regard and liaises with various large public and other organisations on this issue. The Equality Diversity Network has been set up as a forum for the on-going exchange of information.


Case study authors:

  • Kevin Cullen, WRC;
  • Sarah Delaney, WRC;
  • Ciaran Dolphin, WRC.

Online sources:

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