Work-life balance - a win-win situation

Blog posts

29 Sep 2015

Andrea BroughtonAndrea Broughton

Last week was National Work Life Week 2015, with Go Home on Time Day thrown in for good measure. Fostering a good work-life balance is key to ensuring that people are productive at work and have the time and energy to fulfil their commitments or interests outside of work. Ensuring the balance between work and personal life is also key to combatting stress, which is the cause of a significant level of absence from work. So, how can this elusive goal be achieved?

There are many ways in which employers and individuals can foster good work-life balance. Flexibility around working time is a vital element in any work-life balance policy, and one that need not be disruptive to the rest of the workforce, particularly if work-life balance is mainstreamed across an organisation. Flexible working includes elements such as part-time working, which is popular among employees with young children, term-time working, flexitime, time banking, job sharing, and arranging shift patterns to suit individual needs and commitments. Flexible working is supported by legislation giving all employees with at least six months’ service the right to request flexible working options. The employer may refuse this request, but must give the reasons for the refusal.

The Fourth Work-Life Balance Employer Survey (published by BIS in December 2014), carried out by IFF Research and IES, shows that flexible working is commonplace in UK workplaces: nearly all employers (97 per cent) covered by the survey had at least one form of flexible working available. The number of flexible working arrangements offered to staff depends primarily on the size of the establishment, although public and third sector organisations tend to offer a larger number of flexible working arrangements than private sector companies, irrespective of size.

In terms of the types of flexible working that are on offer, the survey found that the incidence of job-sharing had decreased over the past six years, but that the practice of temporarily reducing working hours and the use of flexitime had increased, the latter particularly in the public sector.

It would seem that employees are taking up their legal right to request flexible working: 40 per cent of employers covered by the survey said that they had received requests over the last 12 months and that the most common were for working reduced hours for a limited period. Requests were usually successful: only nine per cent of employers had refused a request.

Employers can be nervous of flexible working and work-life balance arrangements, fearing that it may not be good for their business and harm teamworking and the overall cohesion of the workforce. However, there is a generally accepted business case that employees who are able to combine work and personal life in a way that suits them are likely to be happier at work, more productive and more loyal. This in turn contributes to the business by raising productivity and lowering staff turnover. Specifically, if an individual has found a workplace that can accommodate their particular work-life balance preferences, they are less likely to move to a different employer.

Employees themselves can worry that moving to more flexible working may make them appear less committed to the organisation than colleagues who are working more regular hours and have a greater presence in the office. While there can be a danger that employees who work remotely or who are not in the office at the same time as the rest of their team could risk isolation or marginalisation, new technology makes it much easier to keep in touch, via remote desktop connections, intranets, Skype, email and other messaging systems.

Line managers may also find it difficult to accept flexible working and work-life balance arrangements at first, especially if they are not experienced in working in that way; they may fear that if employees are not physically on the premises, they may not be working. Commitment and buy-in from senior management, coupled with effective training for line managers, is therefore key to successful implementation of flexible working. If the commitment to work-life balance comes from the very top of the organisation, this will foster an organisation-wide culture that supports work-life balance and accepts this as the norm for all employees, not just those with responsibilities for caring for young children.