Survey examines company initiatives and agreements on reconciling work and family life

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Measures implemented by companies to help their employees in reconciling work and family responsibilities are still relatively rare in Italy. However, the findings of a survey, published in 2003, highlight a number of interesting 'family-friendly' schemes introduced by Italian companies in recent years. The survey indicates that these companies provide a varied mix of measures, including innovative working time arrangements and telework, company services for families and childcare, allowances and benefits, and specific career-support measures for employees with family commitments.

A 2003 study reports the findings of a survey of company 'good practice' with regard to reconciling work and family life, conducted by the Fondazione Regionale Pietro Seveso for the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy's Equal Opportunities Committee (Comitato per le pari opportunità) (Quando il lavoro è amico. Aziende e famiglie: un incontro possibile, Anna M Ponzellini and Anna Tempia, Edizioni Lavoro, 2003).

Care work as 'women’s work'?

The stated context for the study is that enabling the reconciliation of work with family responsibilities will be one of the greatest challenges faced by all industrial countries in the next few years. Today, paid employment is both a necessity and an opportunity for men and women alike, but entering the labour market has inevitably reduced the amount of work that women undertake within the family, such as: care for small children, the elderly and people with disabilities; domestic chores; and administration of the household. These activities are still indispensable, but they can no longer be performed by women alone. The load, it is stated, must be redistributed among the various actors involved, and by means of solutions implemented at various levels: at the private level with a new division of family duties between the partners in the couple; and at the public level with financial support for families and the widening and upgrading of public services. No less important, however, is the contribution that companies can make by adopting a 'family-friendly' culture and introducing specific measures which, without prejudice to corporate objectives, address the needs of fathers and mothers, and of all employees with care responsibilities.

Help from companies

In many respects, according to the report, Italian companies do not seem particularly sensitive to the difficulties faced by their employees - especially women with families - in balancing work with domestic responsibilities. Perhaps also because of the predominance in Italy of small and very small enterprises, the media periodically report cases of discrimination in recruitment, difficulties in career advancement, and even dismissals of pregnant women, due to the widespread prejudice that women with children are less productive. Furthermore, the scarcity of part-time jobs signals the preference of Italian companies for a 'totally available' workforce such as that traditionally constituted by adult males.

Given these circumstances, the results of the recent survey conducted by the Fondazione Regionale Pietro Seveso come as somewhat of a surprise. The survey shows the existence of a certain number of companies which are sensitive to the needs of employees with family responsibilities, and which have introduced organisational solutions to improve the quality of their lives.

Survey findings

Examples of good company practices were collected by a postal questionnaire sent to 190 companies already reported as being 'sensitive' to problems of work/family reconciliation, and to 40 company 'workers’ clubs' (circoli aziendali dei lavoratori). Around 1,300 company-level agreements, signed in all sectors and in every part of the country during the period 1996-2001, were also examined. The result was a list of 310 company work/family reconciliation measures, which were classified into four types: 'working hours and telework' (70% of the total) ;'company services' (11%); 'allowances and benefits' (18%); and 'support during career interruptions' (2%)

The most interesting working hours and telework measures identified were:

  • forms of paid and unpaid leave to deal with various kinds of family issues - such as paternity leave for fathers on the birth of a child, time off for employees to care for sick family members, or disabled or drug addicted children, and bereavement leave;
  • flexible clocking-on and clocking-off times;
  • self-management of shifts by production workers;
  • paid leave for parents using childcare services for the first time (parents may be required to be present with the child during the first few days at a nursery, for example);
  • the option of working at home during the child’s first year; and
  • the introduction of an 'hours bank' system whereby overtime can be set aside for use as time off according to personal needs.

Notable among company services for the family are the following:

  • the establishment in a substantial number of cases of company crèches, 'baby parks', and play areas (especially in the Milan metropolitan area) within large organisations, especially those with high proportions of women employees, such as hospitals, call centres and insurance companies;
  • the organisation by numerous companies of seaside, mountain or city holidays for employees’ children;
  • the provision by one company of a take-away evening meal service run by its canteen; and
  • the introduction by one company of a counselling service for employees with family problems.

Allowances and benefits identified include:

  • advances on the end-of-service allowance (Trattamento di fine rapporto, Tfr - a portion of a worker's pay set aside by the employer and then paid as a lump sum at the end of the employment relationship) for employees taking unpaid parental leave;
  • loans to employees in financial difficulties;
  • mortgages for employees' house purchases;
  • payment of workers' kindergarten and nursery fees;
  • study grants for employees' children; and
  • in a particularly interesting case, reimbursement by one company of the care expenses incurred by employees during temporary work postings (for childminders or carers hired to look after elderly/ill family members).

Finally, among career interruption support measures particular mention should be made of the creation by several companies of 'maternity and paternity counsellors', who maintain contacts with absent employees or organise tutoring or refresher courses for employees returning after maternity leave or long spells of parental leave.

Commentary

The growing presence of women in companies and their need to achieve the best possible balance between work and family life are inducing numerous companies to flexibilise their work organisation and to introduce measures to assist employees in coping with their family responsibilities, with particular regard to the care of small children (it is here that the public services are most unsatisfactory). Whatever the motives of these companies - the pursuit of an ideal of 'corporate social responsibility', maintaining good relations with the local community, or curbing employee turnover and absence - this new attitude signals an important development in labour relations characterised by a focus on issues of working life quality as well as the greater individualisation of the solutions proposed. (Anna M Ponzellini. Fondazione Regionale Pietro Seveso)

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