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Work and Life Balance
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Work and Life Balance
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Expert Opinion

Within organisations and on the home front, the challenge of achieving a balance between work and life is becoming an increasingly important issue. In many organisations the need for action to be taken on work/life issues has resulted from the identification that:

  • they require continuously productive, motivated, and loyal employees
  • employees are becoming increasingly concerned with the balance between their work roles and identities, and their leisure, family and community time
  • employees are dissatisfied with current arrangements - as identified through staff satisfaction surveys and performance appraisal meetings
  • employee demographics are changing - more women are entering the workforce and increasingly staff are having to juggle family responsibilities with those of work e.g. single parents, those with aging or sick relatives
  • the costs of replacing staff are significant (and increasing) - e.g. the costs of recruitment, training, lower performance while a new recruit is being brought up to speed, temporary cover etc.
  • workers are becoming more educated, mobile, and willing to change jobs if their needs are not being met
  • there are skill and knowledge shortages in many industries that are becoming increasingly difficult to replace
  • legislation changes are requiring organisations to become more flexible in the way that employees are working.

Vancouver based Martha Frase-Blunt (2001) identifies that many employees, in their concern for their work, only take a 'busman's holiday' - doing on their days off, or in vacation time, what they would do at work. Frase-Blunt cites studies that show workers take mobile phones, laptop computers, and beepers home over the weekends and on holidays. Calling into work to check progress, and accessing voicemail and e-mail were also shown to be common practices. Jill Casner-Lotto of the Work in America Institute believes that "while today's communications devices are a boon to flexibility, freedom and enhanced sharing of information, they also undermine the work/life balance". The Society for Human Resource Management's HR Content Expert, Nancy Lockwood (2003), also cites a recent study that "reveals that employees are often pre-occupied with work when not working, and when in the company of family and loved ones experience an inability to be meaningfully engaged in non-work spheres".

With concern over the marked and comparatively low UK employee productivity levels, the UK government has recognised the problems connected with trends of working long hours. In March 2000 a five year programme was launched by the Department of Trade and Industry focusing on tackling the long hours culture of the country, targeting sectors with acute work/life balance problems and providing support and guidance to both employers and workers. In the UK changes to the Employment Act 2002 have also introduced as a statutory duty, that an employer must consider seriously any requests for flexible working hours made by parents of young or disabled children.

Research indicates that work/life practices enable people to:

  • enter and remain in the labour force
  • be at work on time, concentrate more and be productive
  • be less stressed
  • take less time off.

Adopting work/life initiatives can enable employees to better manage their life responsibilities, and as a result, be more focused and productive at work. In many organisations such practices have been embedded through the introduction of comprehensive 'benefits' programmes or policies.

Research evidence further suggests that significant business-critical benefits can be achieved through the introduction of such practices. These include:

  • improvements in manning levels and productivity
  • reduced absenteeism and taking of paid and unpaid leave
  • increased employee satisfaction
  • a more open-minded organisational culture in which the interests of both the employee and the company are protected
  • an enhanced reputation within the community that helps attract new staff, and enhances both public and community relations.

While many organisations have programmes and policies in place, many see their role as facilitating flexibility by offering options that allow employees to organise their own solutions based on their own individual needs. The options that have been introduced include:

  • flexible work arrangements that provide the opportunity for greater elasticity in determining when, where, or how work is done e.g. flexitime, job sharing, shift swapping, staggered work hours, telecommuting; compressed work weeks, and self-rostering
  • arrangements that facilitate childcare e.g. financial assistance with off-site care, child care facilities on-site, term-time working and child care leave during school holidays (such as reduced hours or temporarily stopping work), and phased return to work after maternity leave
  • arrangements that facilitate care of ill or dependent family members e.g. family leave, counselling assistance and other family-support information or assistance, flexible work arrangements, career breaks, and sabbaticals
  • employee reciprocation and buddy arrangements that allow employees to take a true full break from work while on vacation e.g. other staff volunteer or are seconded to take responsibility for answering queries, checking voice and e-mails, and handling difficulties that may arise while another staff member is on holiday. In the UK, Maureen Moody (1999) notes that Faberge, a Leeds-based cosmetic company, has a 'child minder' scheme that has resulted in a more motivated, productive workforce..." and that "The company's reputation is enhanced and that helps us attract new staff". Moody also noted the UK company Eli Lilly as having gained useful spin-offs from their family-friendliness programme, which includes job-sharing, term-time working, and phased returns to work after maternity leave.

Stephen Bevan (2003), deputy director of research at The Work Foundation, says that flexible hours are a good way of keeping the best employees. In a recent survey by The Work Foundation, 400 personnel specialists were questioned, 66 per cent claimed flexible working helped to reduce absenteeism. Bevan also concludes that "During the next 10 to 15 years, it will be fundamental to employers retaining their best staff."


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