UK businesses prove work/life balance policies can improve a firm's bottom line

DTI minister Patricia Hewitt explains the benefits of flexible working practices

DTI minister Patricia Hewitt explains the benefits of flexible working practices

From the boardroom to the office, the modern working environment is increasingly populated by employees who are making decisions to gain more control in their working lives. This desire to achieve a balance between work and other aspects of their lives has led many people to put the issue of work/life balance at the top of the business agenda.

However, work/life balance strategies are more than simply a reactionary measure designed to satisfy an increasingly demanding workforce. Society and the working world have changed significantly, and businesses are continually adapting their working practices accordingly.

The fact that almost half of the UK workforce are women, alongside an increasingly ageing population, has created a number of pressures and incentives for employers. For example, if just 10% of non-working mothers returned to work after maternity leave, employers could save up to £39m a year in recruitment costs.

For companies with large IT departments, the problem is particularly acute. Research by the Women in IT Champions Group found that in the first quarter of 2002, women accounted for only 36% of new IT recruits but, during the same period, 46% of people leaving the industry were women.

Loyalty and commitment are priceless commodities for employers, many of which have become aware that people are their most important asset. Many businesses have realised that recruiting and retaining the best people can be achieved through well considered work/life balance policies. In a poll conducted earlier this year, three in 10 IT workers said they would rather have flexible hours than a £1,000 pay rise. Almost half of respondents working in IT chose flexible working as the benefit they would most look for in their next job.

This research is symptomatic of a society looking for more control over the way its time is organised. Nine to five is no longer the norm - consumers and businesses are demanding access to services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and employees in the IT industry are often expected to facilitate that 24x7 access.

Yet the problem lies deeper than a desire to cut working hours. People in the UK work the longest hours in Europe - one in three fathers, for example, works more than 48 hours a week. Although many people are rebelling against the idea of spending their lives in the office, the macho culture of long hours and "presenteeism" is still prevalent in many industries in the UK.

The government is addressing these issues through the introduction of new rights for working parents. Parents with young or disabled children have the right to ask for flexible working, and employers have a statutory duty to consider those requests seriously. Maternity pay and leave has been improved, paid paternity leave has been introduced for fathers, and adoptive parents have gained comparable rights. These are in addition to the existing rights to take parental leave and to take time off to care for dependents.

The right to ask for flexible working and improved parental leave conditions offers support for parents with young children. However, we will only succeed with these rights if business leaders realise that flexible working is not just for young mothers. Improving the work/life balance can benefit all employees and businesses.

For example, Xerox UK estimates that the introduction of new ways of working has saved the business £1m over the past five years through enhanced staff retention. At BT, work/life balance initiatives have saved the company hundreds of thousands of pounds in recruitment, retention and development costs and more than £200m in accommodation costs.

Although there is proof that work/life balance policies can have a positive impact on the bottom line, the benefits of a successful work/life balance strategy should not be measured in purely economic terms. Employers should recognise that their greatest assets are those who walk out of the workplace at the end of the day and spend time on other aspects of their lives, whether it be golf or the family.

A motivated and healthy employee is more valuable to a business than someone who suffers from high stress levels. Stress-related illnesses have become an increasingly common cause of high absence rates in UK organisations.

According to the latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive, stress-related absence costs UK industry about £7.1m a week.

However, while businesses are becoming more attuned to the dangers of stress, the real key to work/life balance lies in developing practices and policies that prevent employees from reaching this state. A number of companies have demonstrated that offering flexible working arrangements can reduce health risks as well as have a measurable impact on the bottom line.

Companies from across the public and private spectrum have implemented working practices that have helped to boost morale, reduce absenteeism, and increase productivity. Royal Bank of Scotland, Asda, GlaxoSmithKline and Fox's Biscuits are just some of the UK's work/life pioneers that have reaped the rewards of a work/life balance strategy.

The success of these companies owes much to the level of management support for a coherent work/life balance strategy across all areas, including IT, human resources, marketing and finance.

Employees need to see the working culture change from the top down, as many feel uncomfortable about asking for flexible working because they think it may harm their careers, despite evidence to the contrary.

Recent legislation to help working parents find solutions to their work/life problems should help to raise awareness of the many ways of working available to businesses. In addition, through the work of the Department of Trade & Industry work/life Balance Campaign, the government is promoting the benefits of work/life balance to employees and employers, and is offering practical advice to businesses about how to implement the right policies in the workplace.

However, the responsibility for introducing successful work/life balance policies lies ultimately with senior management - and only by consulting with employees can they begin to contemplate the introduction of such arrangements.

As long as the policies under consideration help to meet core business objectives and employee needs, then businesses will reap the rewards of a more loyal and committed workforce which, in turn, will help to boost productivity.

By learning from the best practice demonstrated by companies such as the Royal Bank of Scotland, businesses in the UK will be in better shape to accommodate the changing demands of the working world.

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