WORK-LIFE balance is a hot topic. But how far should employers go to help staff to harmonise their work with the other elements of their life?
And however desirable work-life balance sounds, is it something that businesses and their employees can ever achieve?
A changing labour market
One of the reasons why the topic of work-life balance is hitting the headlines is the changing face of the labour market.
The old stereotype of male breadwinners out in the workplace with their womenfolk looking after hearth and home has changed radically.
Women not only make up 46% of the labour market, but are also set to be the source of 80% of its growth over the next six years.
The workforce is ageing – there will be 12m over 65s by 2021 and the Government is floating suggestions that people might continue in employment until age 70.
Women and mature workers are a valuable resource for employers. But firms cannot ignore the fact that women continue to bear the brunt of domestic work and childcare or that many older workers may want to work fewer hours.
Recent legislation, including an extension of maternity and paternity rights and granting parents of children under six the right to request flexible working patterns, has put the work-life balance debate at the top of the agenda.
Employers are slow to understand the issues and what’s at stake
Many, if not most, employers find it difficult to put work-life balance policies into practice.
Some employers mention the difficulty of allowing one person to work flexibly but not others. What about the impact on colleagues’ workloads? And what is a ‘good’ reason for being allowed to work flexibly – only childcare, or should other responsibilities and interests qualify?
Attempting to address the work-life balance can leave managers feeling unsure. Flexible working requires less command and control, more focus on outputs and more trust. It’s not easy.
Smaller businesses often complain that it is something that only big businesses can afford to do. Many see it as a flash in the pan, a topic that will go away if you just draft a policy on it to comply with legislation.
This is understandable. Customers are becoming more demanding. They want longer opening hours and more personal service and their expectations must be met. With these commercial pressures, where does work-life balance fit in?
Why companies should embrace work balance more?
The reason work-life balance is important to employers and employees is that in many businesses, profits depend on adding value, on customer relationships and on knowledge. That means the costs of recruiting, retaining, motivating and rewarding the right people has gone up.
Work-life balance and flexible working helps many companies to hire and keep the best staff. Employees whose lives are in balance are also likely to respond better to customers’ demands than those who are discontented.
Flexible working can mean the difference-between keeping and losing a valuable employee, with all their experience and contacts.
The average cost of labour turnover in 2001 was £3,462, rising to £5,699 for managers. So reducing these costs can bring bottom-line benefits. This is not only true for big organisations.
Research in 2000 found that some small businesses saved up to £250,000 through introducing flexible working policies that reduced staff turnover.
Improving staff motivation and satisfaction through flexible working can have a significant impact on customer service and productivity.
Organisations that have found work-life balance to be the most effective tend to ensure they have their own balance – between the needs of customers and the needs of the organisation, and between costs and resources.
Companies need to maintain this delicate balance or they will find themselves doing the same old thing – working harder, not smarter.