Challenges of achieving a work-life balance in Spain

According to a new report, measures aimed at balancing work and family life are in short supply in Spain and those that exist are found to be ineffective. New initiatives and public measures are required, as well as a change in cultural attitudes. Companies in particular need to be convinced of the importance of accepting workers’ needs with respect to family issues.

The report Informe España 2004 (2004 Report for Spain) was published by the Fundación Encuentro in May 2004. An annual publication since 1993, the report provides a series of analyses on social, economic and political issues in Spain. The 2004 report devotes a chapter to the balance of work and family life (pdf file; in Spanish), regarded by the authors as one of the most challenging issues that Spanish families face on a day-to-day basis.

The relevance of the topic is shown by the remarkable increase (12 percentage points over the last decade) in the number of Spanish households with two working adults: 43% of all households had two working adults in the 20 to 59 age range in 2000. However, this percentage still lies well behind figures found in other European countries (e.g. 75% in the UK).

Breakdown for houses where both partners work

The research found that problems can arise in households where both parents work outside the home. These are even more acute due to the fact that most people work full-time in Spain and this means that parents are unable to take care of their children during the week. This factor, added to the scarcity of childcare facilities, can have negative effects on the work and family life balance, impacting on the following groups:

  • Parents, who are caught between professional and family demands, leading to stress, depression and reduced quality of life. Such problems affect both men and women, though the proportion of women reporting to suffer from such symptoms (21%) is twice that found among men (11%).
  • Grandparents, since many of them have to look after their grandchildren. It is reported that approximately one third of women under the age of 30 with children or other persons in their care would not be able to work without the support of other relatives, mainly grandparents.
  • Companies, due to the fact that worker productivity can suffer as a result of reduced attention and often increased absenteeism. At least one in four women and one in five men report arriving to work late during the last three months due to family reasons (see Table 1).
Table 1 Effects on work and family life balance (% distribution of workers, 2003)
Women Men
Never Once More often Never Once More often
Arrive late at work 72 7 20 77 8 14
Leave work early 66 9 24 73 9 18
Absenteeism 71 9 20 76 10 13

Source: Informe España 2004, Meil, G., and Vara, M. J., ‘Necesidades y recursos para conciliar la vida familiar y profesional en la Comunidad de Madrid’ (Needs and resources for balancing work and family life in the Region of Madrid), Directorate General of Women, Labour Department, Regional Government of Madrid, Madrid, 2003.

The report argues that measures adopted by the Spanish public authorities aimed at fostering a better work-life balance - especially those focusing on extended leave and reducing working hours - are not effective. This is due to the following reasons:

  • many families cannot afford to take leave and hence reduce their income at a time when household expenses are increasing;
  • women are reluctant to accept leave: one in three women who accepted reduced working hours, and one in five who took extended leave, believe that their professional careers were curtailed as a result.

The authors of the report propose a series of measures, requiring the participation of all relevant stakeholders. As a crucial first step, they recommend that public administration define a legal framework to support a work-life balance through a variety of fiscal and labour measures. In addition, there is a need to set up more nursery schools for children under the age of three, particularly as Spain lags behind most European countries in this regard. In terms of companies, managers must understand that satisfied workers are likely to be more productive. A certificate for ‘family friendly workplaces’ could be established, acknowledging those companies which allow their workers to look after their family. This could be regarded as a prestigious certificate, in the manner of environmentally friendly businesses.

% of children under three years attending nursery school

It is important to note that all these practices require a change of attitude, especially among men, who have to be fully committed to taking care of children and the elderly. A change of culture will be vital to achieving a satisfactory balance between work and family life.

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