Work/life balance: Getting it right

Recent research has shown graduates do consider the flexible working provision of potential employers as they enter the workplace. Newly-qualified accountants are achieving chartered status, then turning their backs on the long hours culture prevalent within the firms that trained them.

Offering flexible working is seen as the way to respond to the work/life balance agenda and the UK is well ahead of its European counterparts.

In April 2003, the government will introduce legislation allowing men and women with children up to the age of six – and parents with disabled children up to the age of 18 – to apply for some form of flexible working.

Companies will not be compelled to grant all requests, but refusals must be explained in terms of the business case against the request. Unreasonable refusals may end up at tribunal and sceptics see this as another unnecessary bureaucratic and administrative burden on companies with a negative effect on employment costs. Generally it is uncertain how well prepared firms will be to deal with this process, as the responsibility will invariably come down to the middle manager.

Our research and public and private sector clients recognise the potentially positive effect flexible working options has on the bottom line, such as increased productivity, easier and less costly staff recruitment and savings resulting from improved staff retention. Increasingly, businesses will need this flexibility to react in today’s competitive 24/7 environment.

Addressing work/life balance within organisations is not an easy option and is not simply about introducing flexible policies.

Kate Howsley, director of organisational effectiveness at Kellogg’s, Europe, found that addressing work/life balance was complex and meant getting involved in a broad range of development programmes.

‘We already offered a great deal to staff, but discovered it needs to be a two-way process. First, we assumed we should provide work/life balance. We then discovered we could provide an environment promoting this as individuals need to be responsible for achieving their own balance.’

This issue of two-way rights and responsibilities is often left out of the work/life balance debate and it is too important to ignore.

Individuals should take responsibility for achieving their own work/life balance and for reasonably ensuring their work lives are not negatively affected by life outside work. At the same time, if employers want high performance from their staff, they must ensure systems, such as workload management and performance management, are in place.

This is often where the root cause of work/life imbalance lies and is why the work we have done with companies leads us to redesign the management of work itself. We regularly find people take on new projects without being allowed to delegate old ones, that job descriptions are out of date and not reviewed, and that technology has increased the workload burden rather than improved it.

High performers are often given more work as they are so capable: poor performers are rewarded by being given less to do. Staff who reduce their working hours may find their workload does not decrease pro rata, (although their pay does!) Tinkering with flexi-time will not affect these issues.

Offering flexible working practices needs to be done within the context of the business strategy. An integrated work/life balance policy should aim for staff and management to be working in the same direction with organisational and personal goals aligned.

  • Cary Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health at UMIST and director of Robertson Cooper.

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