How employers can be a flexible friend

Flexible working offers the chance to balance home life and work in a way which benefits both. Picture: Monkey Business Images
Flexible working offers the chance to balance home life and work in a way which benefits both. Picture: Monkey Business Images
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Improved productivity and a better home-work balance, so we all win, argues Sarah Jackson

‘Burnout Britain” is not just media hyped jargon – long working hours which lead to unmanageable tension between home and work life is a reality for far too many people and has a crushing effect on our health, family life, society and economy.

The number of people working excessive hours has risen by 15 per cent since 2010, say the Trade Union Congress. Their recent study reveals that the number of people working more than 48 hours per week has risen after more than a decade of decline. A total of 3.417 million people are working long hours, up by 453,000 since 2010.

However, long hours don’t necessarily translate into increased productivity. Our long-hours culture can in fact be counter-productive for productivity, health and well-being.

Perhaps our thinking around the concept of work in the UK has not modernised as quickly as other countries. We do seem to be hung up on the hours people work and where they work. Instead we need more focus on output and productivity.

Our recent research with working parents in Scotland highlighted that long working hours is leading to tension between work and family life and is without doubt causing a great deal of stress for many workers, seriously affecting their health and wellbeing and impacting negatively not only on their home life but also performance at work – 41 per cent of parents in that survey said that work life is becoming increasingly stressful. More than a quarter felt constantly torn between work and family.

The good news is we starting to witness a sea change, with many employers adopting new ways of working that challenge the traditional, bringing benefits not only for the business but for its people.

Demographics are changing, social expectations are shifting and the economically active engine room in the UK is shrinking. Therefore progressive employers are realising there are real benefits to be had by working with the grain of employees lives. The right to request flexible working legislation now means that any employee can request flexibility. Employers that get why this is a good thing – regardless of whether someone is a carer, a parent, wants to train, study or volunteer – reap rewards.

Forward-thinking employers are realising that a more flexible approach has vast benefits. This includes increased employee motivation, morale and engagement leading to increased productivity. We also know that employee well-being increases and absenteeism decreases. Offering a degree of flexibility in terms of where and when people work also vastly improves recruitment and retention rates. In fact flexibility is now being used strategically by many employers who want to recruit and retain the best talent.

Younger workers entering the job market place a great deal of value on flexibility. And as more and more millennials make up the workforce they will drive further change in how we integrate work and home life.

Many employers are making the link between flexibility and the equality agenda, embracing the notion of being open and responsive to an individual’s circumstances. Again this idea of working with the grain of a person’s life to get the best from them as an employee.

While we are starting to see greater uptake of flexible working for men, it is still predominately women that take on caring roles for children and elderly relatives. Employers who create a culture that encourages flexibility for both men and women will not only help recruit and retain women but will help women move up through the talent pipeline. But this needs to be good and fair work – women should not have to trade down to inferior poorly paid part-time roles in order to integrate work and home life.

In 2014 I helped established the Family Friendly Working Scotland (FFWS) programme in partnership with Parenting Across Scotland, Fathers Network Scotland and the Scottish Government. The aim of the programme is for more employees and more employers in Scotland to benefit from a family friendly approach to work. Amongst other things, FFWS run free events for employers to help them on their journey to greater family friendly working. And in March 2016 FFWS will be announcing the winners of the Scottish Top Employers for Working Families Awards.

Organisations that embrace new and more flexible approaches to work will help us become economically healthier as a nation and healthier and happier as employees. Surely this can only be good news for individuals, families, our society and economy.

• Sarah Jackson OBE is chief exec utive of Working Families

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