The demands of balancing work and life provide a perennial challenge even for those in the most privileged of positions. FLE Group looks at current work-life balance policies and what they mean for the healthcare industry.
In 2003, work-life legislation was extended to offer individuals greater flexibility in areas such as parental leave, maternity, paternity and adoption leave. While these extended provisions are largely lauded for empowering parents in the workplace, and have provided wonderful photo-opportunities for one of the UK’s most high-profile daddies to parade his family policies, the legislation is not limited simply to those with children. Legal modifications to areas such as annual leave, working time, parttime work and the right to request flexible working have all been introduced as part of a cultural and societal shift towards a workplace that helps individuals to juggle professional and domestic responsibilities.
According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), surveys on employee attitudes consistently cite long hours and work intensity as two of the biggest concerns in the workplace. Over a fifth of the UK’s workforce (5.8 million employees) work more than 45 hours each week – much higher than the EU average. Likewise, one in three who work more than 48 hours a week believe it has a negative impact on personal relationships. Two-thirds of UK workers feel their employers provide inadequate family-friendly practices. This not only has a damaging impact on performance in the workplace, but also has repercussions for health and happiness.
In April 2007, the Work and Families Act 2006 will become effective. The Act not only extends the existing statutory provisions on maternity, paternity and adoption leave, but will also increase annual leave entitlements and provide further provision for the right to request flexible working hours. So what does all this mean for the healthcare industry?
Benefits beyond salary
An effective work-life balance (WLB) is not simply a matter of legal compliance. From an employer’s perspective it is about understanding employees’ needs and priorities, and assessing how they can be balanced against business needs. In this regard, the culture in the UK is changing for the better. FLE Group, a specialist recruitment consultancy for the healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors, has been matching clients with candidates for almost 11 years.
During this time, the environment has undoubtedly changed. “Back in 1996, part-time and flexible working were a rarity,” says Louise Brooks, Contract Sales & Recruitment Director at FLE Group and mother of two daughters and two stepchildren. “Nowadays successful organisations realise that their employees are their biggest asset, and that to attract the very best candidates, they have to explore flexible working and offer competitive benefits packages that make a real difference to employees.”
The concept of a competitive benefits package is not limited to remuneration. A recent DTI survey revealed that 33% of jobseekers would choose flexible working hours instead of an additional £1,000 on their salary. In fact, 70% wanted more flexible hours, with almost half (46%) citing flexible working as the benefit they would look for most in their next job.
At FLE Group, most clients offer employees a raft of benefits from which they can choose to suit their personal circumstances. These include benefits such as childcare voucher schemes, holiday purchase schemes, part-time and termtime contracts, fitness centres, flexible working, subsidised health and dental care.
The business gains of WLB policies
The benefits of WLB policies do not all rest with the employee – there are significant business gains to be achieved through a shift in philosophy towards a more flexible model. Primarily, flexible benefits enhance the ‘corporate brand’ by projecting an image of social responsibility. This improves morale, motivation and commitment, and in turn leads to higher productivity and competitiveness. Furthermore, it helps reduce rates of absenteeism and staff turnover.
The costs of staff turnover are high. Not only does a high rate of staff turnover have financial implications, it also damages the reputation of a company. As such, a shift towards more flexible working conditions can provide economic and morale-boosting benefits. For example, BT’s implementation of a WLB policy has created a £3 million saving in recruitment costs since 2003, and led to 98% of women returning to the workplace following maternity leave.
The cost of absenteeism
Sickness in the workplace is a fact of life. However, it would appear that for many, work may be a contributory factor in becoming ill. According to the CBI, 30% of sick leave is the result of stress-related anxiety and depression. This costs British industry an estimated £12 billion each year. Moreover, 80% of visits to British doctors are stress-related, leading to an NHS bill for stress-related illness of £2 billion in 2001. These statistics alone provide a powerful argument for WLB policies in the workplace. The impact of work-related stress is far-reaching.
Shirley Conran, President of the Work-Life Balance Trust, believes that although the definition of WLB is a personal one, the implications remain the same. “Work-life balance means different things to different people and different things at different stages of life. However any definition for anyone must include the problems of lack of time and exhaustion.
Research indicates that failure to achieve the correct balance of effort and rest is linked to a feeling of lack of control over your workload, plus lack of energy to fulfil personal goals and commitments. If the balance is wrong, the result may include fatigue, poor performance and a poor quality of life; this can result in dysfunctional employees, children and families.”
How to approach WLB
So how do employers and employees approach this brave new era of work-life balance? The solution is all about dialogue. While WLB principles are bound by the legal framework outlined in 2003, the implications for both employer and employee need to be considered and discussed.
“Since the introduction of legislation in 2003, employers now have a duty to consider the request (if the employee has a child under the age of 6) if it does not have a detrimental impact upon the business,” says Louise. “Therefore, as an employee, if you want to present a case for a change of working pattern, you must consider the effect on business.
To ensure a work-life balance, it must be a ‘win win’ situation and ensure that balance is maintained on both sides. Once you have a clear idea of how you’d like to change, talk it through with a line manager or your HR department before making formal requests. Give your employer time to consider your proposal; after all, any changes will have to be offered to other employees too. Finally, be prepared to be flexible – you may have to compromise on some of your ideas.”
For the employer it is essential that all company employees are fully briefed on the legislation. Success will come by encouraging dialogue and openness. Sharing ideas will raise morale and convince employees that they belong to an organisation that cares them.
FLE Group and WLB
So what does it mean for the FLE Group? Louise Brooks explains: “In the last 11 years, the majority of our office-based personnel have been females with family commitments. In our desire to retain highly-skilled team members we have created flexible working arrangements allowing us to offer part-time and term-time working without reducing service levels – measured annually in our client audit. In addition, more recently we have used VOIP telephone technology to allow occasional remote office working, linked to the corporate intranet and database and on a ‘virtual’ telephone switchboard.
“When working with clients we will always suggest creative working patterns which facilitate the appointment of the very best candidates. We have found that that strategy allows improved staff retention and better motivated personnel, and does not conflict with the achievement of business goals.”
To find out more about FLE Group, visit www.flegroup.com
For further information on WLB, visit www.cipd.co.uk and search for Work-life balance.