Work/life balance – ‘I Choose Life & Work’

But times have changed.

Over the past decade there has been a major shift in the workplace. A number of leading companies, such as Bain & Company and Accenture, have adapted by offering staff alternative working arrangements, but many are yet to realise the business benefits that such practices can bring.

The modern workforce is sophisticated and employees know their value as well as their rights and responsibilities at work. The wide range of family, work and life commitments many people shoulder mean attitudes to work have changed. As a result employers can no longer assume their staff will all work traditional and inflexible work patterns.

This is particularly true for today’s young professionals who want a more balanced approach to work and place a greater emphasis on the need for wellbeing and a life outside work. Ultimately, this generation will look to careers with employers that can deliver more than a nine to five job and a pay cheque.

As competition to recruit and retain the best staff becomes more intensive, employers should recognise the issue of work/life balance is firmly established on the agenda of potential recruits.

For many employers there is a lot of confusion about what work/life balance is and, in particular, what effective policies can do for a business.

Many employers have still not recognised the benefits, let alone put practices in place.

Like most sectors, accountancy firms operate in an increasingly competitive environment and are faced with the need to increase productivity, lower staff turnover and reduce absenteeism.

Government research has shown nine out of ten employers believe people work best when they can balance work and their lives. This means any employer who is failing to use work/life balance practices to solve business problems risks putting themselves at a distinct disadvantage to competitors who do.

One of the perennial problems faced by accountancy firms is the impact of working long hours on employee performance and wellbeing. It has been estimated that stress-related sick absence costs industry #7.1m every week.

Findings of a survey into the state of the nation’s work/life balance by the Department of Trade and Industry and Management Today magazine have significant implications for accountants across the UK. With one in seven employees within this sector working over 60 hours compared to an average of approximately 45 hours, accountancy firms that are not already doing so need to urgently consider both the personal and financial implications of burning the candle at both ends.

The findings revealed one in six accountants have visited the doctor because of stress – commonly attributed to deadlines and work pressures.

Stressed workers with frayed nerves cannot perform to their maximum and employers know the damage this can do to commercial success. The Health and Safety Executive estimates British industry loses #370m every year to stress-related sick leave.

The culture of presenteeism that exists within many accountancy firms and finance departments undoubtedly contributes to the self perpetuating myth among accountants that working long hours is essential for career progression. In fact, the survey showed one in three accountants back this opinion and roughly the same number believe working long hours is the key to success.

The good news is that a number of accountancy firms, both large and small, who are taking work/life balance practices seriously. At Moore and Smalley, a chartered accountants firm based in the North East, work/life balance practices have been responsible for enhanced client service, increased staff satisfaction and reduced absence.

The 120-strong firm sees its ability to offer better lifestyle as a competitive advantage and believes flexible working patterns and work locations have enabled it to build a reputation as an employer of choice in the North West.

The argument for work/life balance is strong for employers, employees and clients. With the launch of the DTI work/life Balance Campaign and the introduction of rights for working parents, the government is committed to raising awareness of the business case for work/life balance and showing employers how they can implement policies.

Provided that the work/life strategy reflects the company’s objectives, business plan and logistics, it will succeed. Results will not always be instant, but over time a committed company will start to see positive changes.

Employers who want to attract and retain a loyal and committed workforce, both now and in the future, will have to embrace work/life balance practices.

Realistically, work/life balance doesn’t mean we will be working less hard, or that none of us will ever work late ever again. It is about empowering employees with control and choice over their working lives, helping business to run more efficiently and ultimately, boosting productivity.

Go to Patricia Hewitt is secretary of state for trade and industry, minister for women and cabinet e-minister.

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