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Work-life Balance and the Public Sector

January 25 2007 - A recent report from The Work Foundation, commissioned by UNISON, the public service union, concludes that public sector employers may 'talk the talk' on work-life balance, but in practice have limited commitment to changing standard working patterns.

"Work-life balance in the public sector: rhetoric vs. reality" by Fiona Visser and Laura Williams reports on a telephone survey conducted with 1000 Unison members and an online survey of 112 Unison branch secretaries. Focus group interviews were also undertaken. Survey respondents were located in health, education, and local government.

The survey found that three-quarters of public sector employers have initiatives and policies in place addressing work-life balance issues for at least some staff. This is considerably higher than average and includes flexible working, job sharing, home working, term-time contracts, career breaks, childcare provision, and time off to care for sick children.

However, only half of respondents felt they had real choice about their working arrangements and only just over half were aware of available work-life options. Some 53 per cent said their workplace offered flexitime; 52 per cent job sharing; 19 per cent working from home; and 32 per cent term-time working. These figures were much lower than the stated availability in all workplaces.

A third of respondents believed their employers were not committed to helping them achieve work-life balance. Some reported their managers tried to restrict uptake of flexible working by failing to communicate available options, or by dissuading people from requesting them.

Laura Williams, senior researcher at The Work Foundation said:

"Work-life balance is one of those areas where public sector organizations claim to be most progressive. But what this study does is to take a peek beneath those superficial commitments to what happens in real life. And what we see is a classic rhetoric-reality gap. In the worst cases, managers appear to want to stamp out any modest deviation from the norm and become standard-bearers for inflexibility. Now the phrase work-life balance has become popular, the onus is on employers to think creatively about how it can be used not just to benefit staff but to reform the organization - to make it more efficient, responsive and conducive to 'good work'."

The survey identified examples of the difficulties of working flexibly. For example, one respondent said that there was an unwritten policy that employees who worked 12 hour shifts were eligible for career progression, while those who did 8 hour shifts to fit around family commitments were not.

A common complaint was being made to feel like a troublemaker if the possibility of work-life balance arrangements was raised with employers. One respondent said their manager had told them 'I don't do part-time'. In several organizations, flexibility was only available to selected staff.

Respondents also reported that available work-life balance options were often inappropriate. For example, nearly three-quarters of respondents (71 per cent) expressed a strong preference for time off to care for adult dependents but fewer than half of workplaces offer this option. By contrast, 80 per cent of employers offer job sharing, but only 37 per cent of respondents say this is of use to them.

Other key survey findings include:

  • One in four said that work was too demanding.
  • A total of 30 per cent said their career had been damaged by caring responsibilities.
  • Two-thirds (66 per cent) said their job was stressful compared with 34 per cent who said home life was stressful.
  • A total of 68 per cent called for greater flexibility in working arrangements.
  • Some 66 per cent said extending work-life balance options to workers without children would be worthwhile.

The researchers suggest that respondents may be struggling to see the benefit of work-life balance policies but remain committed both to the principle and to their jobs. Some 70 per cent said they are satisfied with their job and share the values of the organization they are working for. A total of 77 per cent said they have a high degree of control over how they work. Some 99 cent agreed that people work best when they can balance work and other aspects of their lives.

Dave Prentis, UNISON general secretary said:

"It is clear from this report that too many employers are still paying lip-service to providing a proper work-life balance in our public services. We need to get employers to understand that achieving that balance can produce great results with a well-motivated workforce delivering quality services. Here in the UK, we already work some of the longest hours in Europe and that has got to change if people are to get a proper balance. There is a very clear role for unions here in encouraging employers, first, to offer more flexible working options, second, to ensure that members get access to them, and third that the options are appropriate to people's needs."

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