· 3 min read · Features

Working Families: Trends in supporting work-life balance

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The perfect storm of a baby boom and an ageing population is a potential HR headache, but you can learn a lot from this year’s Top Employers for Working Families Awards.

Last year, the biggest baby boom for 40 years contributed to the UK population growing quicker than that of any other EU country. According to statistics, 813,200 babies were born in the UK in 2012: the most since 1972. That's a hell of a lot of maternity and paternity leave.

On the flipside, our population is ageing. More than 10 million Britons are older than 65, and that figure will rise to an estimated 19 million by 2050.

Both of these issues affect the workforce, and from an HR perspective, employers need to step up. Not only are there more working families than ever before - record numbers of mothers with young children are now working - but the ageing population means employees are often looking after their parents as well as their children.

The Top Employers for Working Families Awards, for which HR magazine is a media partner, celebrates those who support the work-life balance of all staff. "You do more than employ just the brain and hands - the whole person comes to work," says Working Families CEO Sarah Jackson.

WORKING FAMILIES: TRENDS FOR 2013

HR magazine met with the awards judges to discuss what really stuck out and impressed them in this year's entries. Here are some of the trends they identified.

A wider mix of sectors

"We had a better spread of sectors than ever, including some sectors we've never had entries from before," says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School.

One of the new sectors to the awards is manufacturing, a traditionally male-dominated area. "That's really promising as it shows manufacturers are understanding the importance of work-life balance for men and that flexible working is important for dads too," Cooper explains.

Jackson says she is encouraged by evidence that more public sector organisations are again investing in family-friendly policies, often after cutting diversity and flexible working initiatives to save money during the recession.

The importance of dad

One of the trickiest hurdles to overcome with flexible working is the belief that it's just for mothers. However, recent research from the CIPD finds one in three working mums is now the main breadwinner in their household, suggesting dads are sharing more of the childcare.

Meanwhile, NatCen's British Social Attitudes report notes that in contrast to the mid-1980s, when close to half the public agreed that "a man's job is to earn money; a woman's job is to look after the home and family", only 13% take that view today. "Dads, too, want more time at home," says Mary Mercer, principal consultant at the Institute for Employment Studies.

According to Cooper, though, engaging with fathers on this issue at work can be a challenge for organisations. "On evidence, dads don't tend to apply for flexible working," he explains. "Men's identity tends to come from work, and they can often perceive organisations to be more tolerant of women working flexibly than they are of men doing so." The fact that more men than women are rejected when applying for flexible working backs up this perception.

However, automotive company Ford is a great example of how a male-dominated organisation can engage with fathers. "Encouraging dads to interact with their children, particularly in a sector where flexible working is difficult, makes it a great role model," says Valerie Stevenson, executive, transition and wellbeing coach at VS Coaching.

Caring isn't just about kids

Our ageing population means caring responsibilities for parents will only become more widespread. But how many employers recognise this? "We are on the brink of a demographic timebomb," Cooper warns. "Companies have to think about it because many employees have elderly parents. It's not just about people with kids."

Jackson says while carers for adults traditionally rank below mothers when it comes to flexible and family-friendly working policies, more organisations are taking diverse caring responsibilities seriously. "They see the business imperative in attracting and keeping people," she says.

Culture and leadership

Flexible working truly works for all parties when it becomes more than just a written policy. "It should be part of the culture," says Cooper. That's why top employers for working families look for a holistic approach that makes a decent work-life balance a reality for everyone in the organisation, whatever their life stage or caring responsibilities.

"Leadership is so important," says Mercer. "Organisations need to create a flexible working culture around managers, because if they aren't supportive, it won't work." Senior-level sponsorship, such as at law firm Simmons & Simmons, and management training, such as that provided by Mid Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, often makes the difference between success and failure.

To see the full list of winners, click here.