Headlines: December 7th, 2006



Public sector employers have only a limited commitment to changing standard working patterns, according to new research today although, it says, they ‘talk the talk’ on work-life balance. The study by The Work Foundation says that in some cases employers block people from flexible working or grant requests only to selected members of staff.

This report, commissioned by the public service union UNISON, examined the experience of work-life balance in the public sector and found that overall organisations made substantial paper commitments to the idea. The research found that three quarters of public sector employers have policies in place on work-life balance for some or all staff, – considerably higher than the extent of such policies offered to all workers across Britain. Initiatives in the public sector include flexible working, job sharing, home working, term-time contracts, career breaks, provision for childcare and time off to care for children when they are ill.

Only half of the 1000 public sector trade union members who took part in the survey felt they had a chance to make real choices about their working arrangements and only slightly more than half of them were aware of the work-life options that were open to them. The survey found 53 per cent of respondents were offered flexitime and almost as many could opt for job sharing. Nineteen per cent worked from home and almost a third could choose term-time working. In each case, The Work Foundation says, the figures are much lower than the stated availability of work-life balance options across all British workplaces.

A third of those in the survey felt their managers were not committed to helping them achieve work-life balance and some reported managers seeking deliberately to thwart the take up of flexible working by not communicating information on available options or by dissuading people from requesting them. Laura Williams, senior researcher at The Work Foundation and co-author of the report, said, “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 organisation to make it more efficient, responsive and conducive to good work.”

The report reveals evidence of the difficulties of working flexibly. In one organisation, for example, a member said there was an unwritten policy that employees who worked longer shifts of 12 hours were eligible for career progression, while those who did 8 hour shifts to meet family commitments were not. A common complaint was that individuals were made to feel like troublemakers if they raised the possibility of work-life balance arrangements. Other respondents said the available options were inappropriate to them. Some UNISON members expressed a strong preference for time off to care for people other than children but this was possible in only half of workplaces. In contrast 8 out of 10 employers offered job sharing but only 37 per cent of staff felt this was useful to them.