· 2 min read · Features

Why we need more than flexible working for a work – life balance

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This month witnessed the passage of landmark legislation for UK employees and employers alike. On 30th June, the right to request flexible working was extended to include all UK employees - roughly 20 million - an option previously reserved for those looking after children and carers.

Professor John Ashton, the president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, has called for us to move to a four-day week to help solve levels of work-related stress, enable people to have more family time, exercise and reduce unemployment.

Research suggests bringing the normal working week down from five to four days would also help tackle medical conditions, such as high blood pressure and the mental ill-health associated with overwork or lack of work.

On many levels Ashton’s vision and the direction the Government is taking make real sense. Hay Group’s own research confirms the increasing importance of work-life-balance and flexible working arrangements as a driver of high employee engagement. Such policies provide a foundation for greater workforce diversity and can help employers attract and retain key talent.

The entire topic appears to be gathering momentum, with the likes of Google CEO Larry Page now advocating hiring two part-time staff to work one full-time job in an attempt to help tackle unemployment.

Hay Group’s database of employee opinion norms provides compelling evidence that backs up Ashton’s work-life balance concerns.   

More than one in four employees (27%) working at organisations that are not perceived to support a work-life balance plan to leave their companies within the next two years. That’s compared to only 17% of workers in companies that rank among the top quartile for the support of employees in achieving a reasonable balance between work and personal life.

To put this into context, for an organisation with 10,000 employees, this 10 percentage point reduction in turnover over two years would result in savings of around $17.5 million (£10.2 million).

Globally, work-life balance concerns are rising. Our research reveals that 39% of employees indicate that they did not have a “good balance” between work and personal life, a seven percentage point increase from 12 months previously.

There are also large differences in perceptions of work-life-balance practices across countries and by gender. Canada and the US have the greatest gender-equity between men and women who feel their company supports their work-life balance. Women in Japan feel least supported by their employers in achieving a work-life balance. In the UK, by contrast, women have a six point advantage over men. Overall, women in Denmark appear to have the best deal.

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In exploring employee attitudes by hierarchy level some interesting typologies emerge. In Germany, those at the top of the tree experience the lowest work-life balance support. In Japan somewhat of the reverse is true, with frontline employees under the greatest pressure. For the UK, middle management feels the pinch most and in the US it is first line managers. 

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What is clear is that building a successful work-life balance culture requires more than merely offering flexi-work arrangements.

Leaders should:

  • Ensure clear direction regarding organisational priorities to help employees focus on what matters most
  • Implement policies and practices consistently to ensure that workloads are fairly and equitably distributed
  • Emphasise high levels of teamwork within and across the business to provide employees with access to support from co-workers
  • Support training, development, and empowerment opportunities to ensure that employees at all levels have the skills and decision-making authority to get the job done
  • Provide adequate resources (e.g. tools, equipment, supplies) to enable employees to execute work tasks efficiently and with high quality
  • Be open to hiring people despite uncertainty of the economic environment 

Hay Group’s ongoing research into the management practices of the World’s Most Admired Companies reinforces that executives in top-performing companies have a sharper focus on work-life balance practices than their peers, as shown below.

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What we can be sure of is the world of work is changing fast. By 2030 our working patterns are likely to be radically different from today – including our hours, where we are based and how we interact with each other.Technology has the potential to be both a huge enabler and derailer of healthier working lives.

Ben Hubbard is the director for Europe, Hay Group Insight