Allowing workers a home life is the new trend, says the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development’s Angela Baron.
On the first day of its recent conference, the TUC released a poll that revealed that managers work an average of 8.2 hours of unpaid overtime a week. Professional people give 9.8 hours free and clerical staff give away 3.8 hours. The same poll found that although 85% of workers said they enjoyed their jobs, more than half are finding it difficult to cope with the pressure, and more than 12 million feel their job makes them bad tempered or irritable at home. There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that the long-hours culture is detrimental not only to family life but also to the health and well-being of workers. The buzzword is fast becoming “work-life balance”.

What does that mean?

Businesses are waking up to the fact that workers have lives too, and policies designed to help them manage those lives can actually save money in the long term. Yet despite all the evidence, the majority of organisations still do very little to help employees balance work with their personal lives. Even when companies have policies in place, managers find them difficult to implement and individuals often feel reluctant to ask for flexibility in a culture that still worships the work ethic. In her book When Giants Learn to Dance, American academic Rosabeth Moss Kanter wrote: “Traditional assumptions about the separation of work life and personal life are no longer viable, but we have not yet created a coherent set of new values and beliefs to take their place.”

Is it possible to balance time spent in the workplace and personal time?

Work can never be entirely divorced from personal life, but society finds to hard to draw an acceptable framework that balances earning a living, with family and leisure time. The result is a low value put on caring or nurturing and a high value on accounting or computer skills.

Undoubtedly, there are still significant cultural barriers to be overcome. Managers often tell me the traditional reward package is unable to meet the demands of a new breed of employee. “We can only offer money, pensions and cars, but they want flexible working and more time with the kids, as well as career development,” says one. When asked why the firm does not redesign the reward package to reflect this change, the reply is: “It wouldn’t go down well with the boss.”

Isn’t that balance an impossible dream?

Society puts a low value on caring or nurturing and a high value on accounting and computer skills

Some organisations are not so narrow minded.

At Littlewoods, which was named employer of the year last year by the charity Parents At Work, work-life issues are instigated at board level. Shift patterns have been redesigned to create flexibility, and work design teams are looking at how to structure new jobs in terms of hours and tasks to meet the needs of both the business and individuals.

At HSBC, there is a wide-ranging approach to “family friendliness” that includes generous family leave to care for sick or disabled dependants. And Asda allows staff to stop work for eight to 10 weeks during school holidays. Companies that implement packages like these report significant business benefits in terms of productivity, reduced absenteeism, labour turnover and performance.

Will these ideal conditions get off the ground in less enlightened firms?

Implementing improvements depends on managers who are positive about work-life balance. There is much evidence that the demand for change will grow, and in today’s tight labour market, flexibility is seen as a key tool in the battle to attract and retain scarce skills. Only when it is acceptable to want time with the family rather than at the desk will work-life balance become a reality. Remember, no one ever died wishing they had spent more time in the office.