The workplace can be a tyranny. If the customer comes first, workers must come second, and the result is stressed-out, miserable staff. Eleanor Cochrane looks at a scheme to give us our lives back, plus a chance to record your views and an account of a firm that's got it right
When was the last time that you worked late, had to cancel a holiday, or missed an important occasion because of work? In today's pressure-cooker work environment, these kinds of imposition are becoming the norm. We are spending more and more time at work, and less time with our families and friends.

This is a particular problem for the project-based construction industry, in which clients' expectations and looming deadlines can lead to long, inflexible hours and stressful working conditions. "There is a tendency for people working in project-based activities to get their balance out of kilter," says Paul Hodgkinson, chairman and chief executive of Simons Group.

But there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that excessive work pressures are not only detrimental to employees' personal life, but also to the economy: the latest figures reveal that the annual NHS bill for stress-related illness is £2bn. Absenteeism loses the economy 7 million working days and costs British industry £5bn each year. But rather than accepting it as inevitable, there is a movement that hopes to counter this trend: the "work–life balance" movement.

The government has become so concerned that the working population is running itself into the ground that it set up the Work–Life Balance Challenge Fund in March 2000 and gave it a budget of £10.5m to 2003. It is intended to help interested firms provide their employees with a better work–life balance through measures such as flexible working patterns, flexible working locations and benefits such as childcare.

But of 392 applications for consultancy advice – 176 of which were successful – the fund has yet to receive any from a construction firm, suggesting that the industry is not taking the issue seriously. Indeed, the Construction Industry Training Board admits that it has not done any research into the subject and UCATT says work–life balance is not an issue the union will be taking up as it "doesn't affect the majority of our membership". In response to this lack of interest, the DTI is targeting the construction industry in order to raise awareness of the campaign and its long-term aims.

Seeing the light
Some firms in the conservative construction industry are beginning to take a more enlightened approach towards employee conditions. Mansell was so concerned about employee stress levels that it set up free telephone counselling for employees – although chief executive Philip Cleaver admits that the firm has yet to implement any preventative measures on the work–life balance agenda.

Heery International has gone a step further by developing its own work–life balance initiative, with 10 key areas that it hopes to tackle this year, including holidays, time management, home working and reward systems. "We feel that our staff are under pressure," explains managing director Graham Rice when asked why he feels the initiative is necessary.

One area in which Heery has already begun to implement work–life-friendly policies is holidays: to tackle the problem of staff failing to use their holiday entitlement, the firm is asking staff to book – or at least plan – their year's holiday by Easter. And if employees are asked to cancel any of their holidays, Heery will repay them twice the number of days cancelled. Rice says that one of the most popular ideas has been the "joker card", three of which are given to employees each year. These enable them to leave the office, no questions asked, any time after 2.30pm.

"We are trying to change the attitude to work," says Rice. "We hope people will work just as hard, but with more tolerance. The idea is that if you owned a business, how would you work? You would work hard, but you would fit it around your other commitments."

To really make an impact on the industry, though, the issue of work–life balance needs to be tackled more broadly. "The starting point is to encourage people to open their minds to a change in the working culture," says a spokesperson for the RICS, who believes that fear of the unknown is holding firms back. Heery International has offices in Spain, Germany and the USA, and Rice believes that Britain could learn a lot from these countries, where they seem to combine work and social lives with more ease.

"There is a real work ethic in this country. The culture is that the job is the number one priority, and if a client asks you to work when you have booked time off, you cancel it," says Rice. This is backed up by reports such as the 1998 Employee Relations Survey, which shows that in the UK, on average, we work longer hours than in any other European country: 43.6 a week. The least workaholic country, Belgium, has an average working week of 38.4 hours.

But not everyone is convinced that the working culture in Britain is in need of any change. "I don't buy this workaholic Britain idea," says Ruth Lea, head of the policy unit at the Institute of Directors. She emphasises the positive role that work plays in most people's lives – people who go to work tend to be healthier and happier than those who don't – and says that the problems with work–life balance initiatives is that they tend to portray work in all its negative guises. "People seem to be out to demonise business," she says, bewildered.

What about the business?
The most common complaint against flexible working policies is that they can have a detrimental effect on business. "The idea sounds all very marvellous, but particularly for small firms, there can be problems running the business," Lea says. And this is a concern that dogs even those keen on improving the flexibility of their employees' working conditions. Simons' Hodgkinson admits that the firm is tackling the issue of its employees' work–life balance, but says there are no magical solutions. "We work in the same commercial environment as everyone else," he points out.

But proponents of flexible working emphasise that it does not mean working less hard, and it does not mean that an employee will never have to work late; it is about being more in control. Alan Johnson, employment relations minister at the DTI, says: "Companies that offer their employees a better balance between work and home reap the rewards of increased job satisfaction among the workforce, reduced staff turnover and higher productivity." All of these have a positive effect on a business' bottom line.

With most companies in construction now feeling the effects of the skills shortage, the issue of working culture is one that employers ignore at their peril. If firms really want to attract more young people and women into a male-dominated industry, they may well be forced to start looking at their attitude to work.

"These days, if you ask younger people what they would like in 10 years' time, it is to be able to take a year off – not to become managing director or be a millionaire," says Heery's Rice. In other words, the social trend is away from the greed and workaholism that reached their zenith in the 1980s towards a more healthy attitude to work in the context of a more complete life – and construction must not get left behind.

How to strike a balance

There are useful working practices that any firm can offer to help its employees organise their time – without damaging business:
  • Part-time work (less than 30 hours a week)
  • Job-sharing
  • Staggered hours and lunch breaks to cover longer working days
  • Unpaid leave during school holidays
  • Flexitime – an agreed number of hours but with fluid start and finish times
  • Compressed days – an agreed number of hours fitted into fewer days
  • Annualised hours – an agreed number of hours over the year that can be varied to accommodate busy and slack periods