Progress on work-life balance?

Three years on from the launch of the UK government’s 'work-life balance' campaign in March 2000, the topic has become widely researched and debated. This feature reviews the latest developments, to assess what progress has been made in enabling employees to achieve a better balance between work and the rest of their lives.

In March 2000, the UK’s Labour Party government launched a 'work-life balance campaign' (UK0102115F) to encourage employers to introduce flexible working practices to enable employees to achieve a better balance between work and the rest of their lives, and to convince employers of the economic benefits of work-life balance. At the end of its third year, the main focuses of the campaign are on three areas:

  1. tackling the 'long-hours culture';
  2. targeting sectors with acute work-life balance problems; and
  3. providing support and guidance.

The campaign is situated within the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which has created a dedicated website to disseminate information to employers and employees and raise awareness of the supposed economic benefits of work-life balance policies and 'best practice' in the area. According to a report, Balancing work and family life: enhancing choice and support for parents, launched on 14 January 2003 by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the secretary of state for trade and industry, 'best practice' policies cover leave arrangements (including maternity, paternity and career breaks), flexible work arrangements (including home-working and job-sharing), childcare support and training (including retraining for returning parents).

The DTI has given some 400 organisations a total of GBP 11.3 million to pay for consultancy services on flexible working practices as part of its 'challenge fund', and set up a telephone help-line through the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas) for employers and employees to obtain advice on work-life balance issues. The pay-off for employers is promised to include lower absence rates and staff turnover, attracting and retaining a wider range of employees, a loyal and motivated workforce and higher productivity. It is claimed that the cost of not implementing work-life balance policies can be high. Essentially, the government’s message is that everyone benefits.

Union action

Work-life balance is also a significant area of activity for the unions. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) also now has a website dedicated to work-life balance issues, with a fortnightly newsletter. Among the TUC’s objectives for 2003 is to 'raise the quality of working life and promote equality for all'. Although the TUC advocates strong legislation to underpin these policies, like the government, it has also promoted the benefits to employers of introducing work-life balance policies. According to the TUC’s Jo Morris, 'a decent balance between home and work is key to delivering high quality services and recruiting and retaining satisfied staff. The TUC will continue to help unions working with government and employers find practical working time arrangements which suit employees as well as the service.' Individual unions such as Unison (public service workers) also have campaigns and resources to promote the issue.

Both the TUC and Unison stress that work-life balance is not just about mothers, but is about enabling all workers to fit work around 'caring and other interests', to accommodate which flexible work arrangements are advocated.

Employer policy and practice

An alliance of employers, Employers for Work-Life Balance was launched in March 2000, aiming to become a 'one-stop shop' for employers looking both for information and to take action in this area. Members of the alliance include household names such as food retailers Sainsbury’s and Asda, general retailers Littlewoods and Marks and Spencer, and banking groups HSBC, Nationwide and Lloyds TSB. The alliance states that 'work-life balance means different things to different people', but it emphasises flexible working arrangements.

Whilst such large, high-profile organisations can boast the introduction of a range of work-life balance policy initiatives, including in some cases policies on volunteering and study leave, what is the more general picture of employer policy and practice? A major new survey is able to shed some light on the extent to which employers have taken up the government’s message. In a report published in November 2002 entitled Managing workplace change, Robert Taylor examines the findings of a representative survey of more than 2,000 human resource managers, which highlight the limited provision of more flexible working arrangements. The main findings are:

  • 47% of managers said that their organisations’ working time arrangements were sensitive to the needs of women with school-age children;
  • only 3% of organisations provided childcare;
  • 40% provided some maternity pay above the statutory minimum;
  • only 8% said that they offered financial assistance with childcare costs;
  • over two-thirds of organisations did not allow any paid parental leave beyond the statutory minimum;
  • 67% did not offer any opportunities for career breaks;
  • only 22% offered term-time working contracts; and
  • 44% of organisations have a policy of allowing employees to change from full-time to part-time hours.

Taylor concludes from this that there are few signs that most employers in the UK are planning to improve the working lives of employees with family responsibilities. From this study it appears that there is a long way to go before employers adopt work-life balance policies beyond the legal minimum. The result, as Taylor sees it, is that 'women must expect to pay for their absence from their job by receiving lower wages and benefits if they want to juggle their work and family responsibilities.'

The initiative employers appear to adopt most readily is part-time work. This could be characterised as flexibility of employees in context of a '24/7' service culture, rather than flexibility for employees, because those choosing this solution to work-life balance will always pay a wage penalty, whereas some of the other provisions outlined above would actually increase the total remuneration package.

Mirroring Taylor’s report, a new report published by the Equal Opportunities Commission in early 2003 found that 80% of employers felt work-life balance practices fostered good employment relations, yet more than half did not offer any form of flexible working.

Employee perspectives

The DTI recently published the results of an online survey of nearly 5,000 job seekers concerning flexible working arrangements. The main findings (reported in more detail in UK0301102N) were that:

  • 46% chose flexible working as the benefit they would most look for in their next job; and
  • 77% of parents with children under the age of six said that work-life balance is an important factor in deciding whether to apply for a new job.

One significant finding was that both men and women showed a preference for flexible working over other benefits, although more women than men did so (51% compared with 43%). Consideration of work-life balance overall was almost just as important for men as for women (67% and 73% respectively).

This links with the findings of another recent research project, carried out at the University of Hertfordshire, which reported that many fathers find it hard to combine family and work obligations. Almost two-fifths of fathers said that they would prefer to work fewer hours, with two-thirds of these giving spending more time with their family as the reason.

Commentary

Whilst the term 'work-life balance' was barely recognised about 10 years ago, nor widely used until about five years ago, the concept has now spawned a plethora of research projects and policy debates, and many employer and trade union-led seminars and conferences now bear the name. The question that remains unanswered is whether the label holding together a set of policies and practices that might once have been called 'family friendly' will deliver or indeed has delivered any improvement in the working lives of employees. In other words, are the 'business case' arguments made in the name of 'work-life balance' any more convincing to employers than those made in the name of 'family-friendly' policies?

What is certain is that, despite the gender-neutral language of 'work-life balance' and the insistence of the social partners that it is an issue 'for everyone', many of the policy initiatives are aimed at women and/or those with primary responsibility for children, just as 'family-friendly' policies were. For example, one recent government initiative was a three-day 'Improving life at work' conference held on 28-30 January 2003. The first day was entitled 'Tackling the long hours culture', whilst days two and three were devoted to 'Advancing women in the workplace'. Another example is that one of the central policies of work-life balance is flexible work. Recent survey evidence from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that 90% of human resources practitioners believed that flexible or part-time work is mainly taken up by women, and 72% believed that this would harm women’s promotion opportunities. One senior work-life balance consultant believed that the demographic shift towards more women in the workforce was a major driver of work-life balance policies. This indicates a continued focus on enabling women to balance work with family roles and the positioning of the work-life balance debate as primarily about women.

Yet advocates of the new label argue that the language of 'work-life balance' removes the discussion of the importance of achieving a better balance between home and work life from the ghetto of 'women’s issues' associated with the now less popular 'family-friendly' label. In this way, so the argument goes, work-life balance becomes an issue for everyone which employers will then take up more enthusiastically. The problem is that whilst we still have a marked gender pay gap it will continue to make rational economic sense for most households to privilege the male career, so whether the 'work-life balance' discourse can remove 'family-friendly' work practices from the ghetto of 'women’s issues' remains questionable. After all 'work-life balance' does not tackle structural gender inequalities such as segregation and the pay gap, which produce the material inequalities that push women towards privileging family roles and men towards privileging paid work. So far, the evidence of employer policy and practice in the area does not point far beyond strategies to recruit and retain female workers in a tight labour market. (Gill Kirton, London Metropolitan University)

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