Flexible working? What flexible working?

2002

Research in six large workplaces offering family-friendly employment has found as many as half the employees – including those with caring responsibilities – were unaware of the existence of flexible working options available, even when their employers have adopted a formal ‘work–life balance’ policy.

The study, by researchers from the Sheffield Hallam and City Universities, is one of two research reports being published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation during National Work–Life Balance Week. Carried out in Sheffield and Canterbury, it investigated the experiences of managers and staff working in local government, supermarkets and retail banking. It found that:

  • All six workplaces had adopted a wide range of family-friendly employment policies, including compassionate leave, carer’s leave, flexitime, shift-swapping arrangements and voluntary reductions in hours worked. Yet 50 per cent of the employees surveyed were unaware of these options. Managers’ knowledge of work–life balance policies varied between organisations. Supermarket managers were particularly well informed, while awareness among local government managers was lower than expected.
  • Most managers were sympathetic to carers’ needs, but felt there was a lack of training, guidance and consultation about work–life balance issues. Some also voiced concern that demanding service delivery targets were making it more difficult to agree to unpaid leave and other requests for flexibility from carers. Reorganisation and leaner staffing arrangements in local authorities and banks had also created barriers to the effective implementation of family-friendly employment policies.
  • Managerial discretion played an important part in enabling employees to balance their work and caring responsibilities. Some carers thought this had led to inequalities in the way that individual staff were treated.
  • The extent of caring responsibilities among staff varied between the organisations and between the two cities. Overall, one in five employees were caring for a dependent adult and one in three were caring for children.
  • Other family members were an important source of help with childcare in both locations. But parents in Sheffield relied more heavily on their extended families than those in Canterbury.
  • Only a minority of carers made use of formal care services for children and older or disabled people, and employers had little contact with local service providers. In Sheffield, an innovative Children Mean Business partnership had been established between local authority children’s services, the South Yorkshire Learning and Skills Council and voluntary organisations to encourage more childcare businesses and promote family-friendly employment.

Sue Yeandle, co-author of the study, said: “Employers should clearly be doing more to raise awareness of their family-friendly employment policies among the workforce. The need for better training in how to implement those policies fairly, identified by many managers, is another area that needs to be addressed.

“Government can contribute to the spread of good practice by supporting initiatives to improve communication between employers and care providers. But there cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ solution to work–life balance issues. We found that the needs of employees varied not only between parents and those caring for older relatives, but also according to the type of employment and local factors. These included the availability of alternative childcare facilities, and whether staff could rely on other family members living nearby for informal support.”

"Employed carers and family-friendly employment policies" by Sue Yeandle, Rosemary Crompton, Andrea Wigfield and Jane Dennett is published for the JRF by The Policy Press and available from Marston Book Services, PO Box 269, Abingdon, Oxon OX14 4YN (01235 465500), price £11.95 plus £2.75 p&p.

A full summary of the findings is available here