The government has set up the Work and Parents Taskforce to look into how to give working parents the right to work flexible or reduced hours. Flexible or "family-friendly" working has been on the agenda for the government, unions and some employers for some time now.
But it is not just working parents who can benefit from practices that improve work-life balance. British employees work some of the longest hours in Europe, and research has shown the effects of the resulting stress on individuals and employers. Unions have been campaigning to ensure that all workers are offered ways of working that allow them to get a better balance between work and other activities, which could include learning, sporting, leisure or other interests as well as family life. Increasing numbers of workers are also caring for elderly relatives and need help to balance these responsibilities with work. Some flexible working practices may also make it easier for disabled people to work.
Employers are also increasingly recognising the benefits of work-life balance measures, with government initiatives providing advice and encouragement.
As part of the government's Work-Life Balance Campaign, launched in spring 2000, research was carried out into the extent of work-life balance practices by the Institute for Employment Research and IFF Research. The study, Work-life balance 2000: Baseline study of work-life balance practices in Great Britain, surveyed 2,500 workplaces and 7,500 individual employees and found that 91% of employers agreed that people work best when they can balance their work and other aspects of their lives.
A study of leading companies by employment research organisation Industrial Relations Services found more than two-thirds reporting that employee commitment and motivation, as well as recruitment and retention, had improved as a result of the introduction of family-friendly practices. Absence rates were also found to have dropped by 41%.
However, the majority of employees are not offered the chance to work flexibly, despite wanting to. The Work-life balance 2000: Baseline study found that only a quarter of employees were in workplaces that offered flexitime. However, almost half (47%) of employees not using flexitime would like the ability to vary their working hours over the day. Over a third (35%) of employees wanted the chance to work a compressed working week (see page 20) and 25% wanted term-time working (see page 17).
The survey also said that there was likely to be a greater take-up of work-life balance practices in unionised workplaces, where there was a greater incidence of consultation. Given the gap between the number of employers who support work-life balance in theory, and those who implement it in practice, it shows the important role of unions in pushing for work-life balance measures.
Unions also have a crucial role in ensuring that any flexibility introduced into the workplace brings benefits to employees and not just the employer. Flexibility from the employer's point of view can mean the imposition of long and unsocial hours or working patterns on employees. The important thing when talking about flexibility at work is that unions and employees are involved in negotiations and consultations and that only practices that improve choice over working patterns are introduced.
The work-life balance project at the London Borough of Merton provides a successful example of joint union and management co-operation. In chapter 2, a detailed case study of the project shows how staff morale, productivity and retention were improved through the introduction of work-life balance policies.
There are many different types of working arrangements described in the booklet which can assist workers to reconcile their working lives with their outside responsibilities and activities. Guidance on negotiating the different options is given in chapters 3 and 4.
The booklet also looks at the legal rights that workers have in relation to working hours and flexibility, including rights to time off to care for dependants and parental leave.
However, it does not cover rights to maternity leave or give information on negotiating paternity or adoption leave, as this information can be found in other LRD publications (see page 39).