Employers’ Forum for Work Life Balance Final Report, 8-9 September, Helsinki
Working conditions and working time arrangements are a primary preoccupation for the majority of families, as well as the place of work and commuting have a great impact on family life. The central point for departure of our conference was that employers have a great responsibility in this matter, and even if not everybody can do everything, every employer can do something to positively impact on the wellbeing of their employee carers and parents.
There are a number of factors that define the work-life balance landscape in every country, and many of the topics that emerged as important are cross-cutting. The conference and the speakers tried to address a great number of these, among which:
In the moment of transition to parenthood LEAVES play a crucial role, and often this is the time when things go wrong in terms of the relationship with work, and the way organisations/employers handle leaves has a huge impact on the continuity of the career and working life. The issue of fathers’ leave is of course a very interesting Europe-wide issue, in the particularly gendered situation of parenting and childcare. One of the many myths is that economic factors determine fathers’ taking or losing out on their right to leave, yet research shows, that it is rather gender equality within the family. Unfortunately workplaces that have solid leave policies for mothers and fathers are still few and far between. It is mainly in the industries which require highly skilled and specialised employees that have made the link between good leave policies and talent retention.
The issue of WORKING TIME was addressed by most of the speakers, as we are generally still stuck in a post-industrialist work arrangement, in which employees and workers need to be seen and supervised during specific hours as a proof of doing the job they are supposed to. There are great variations across Europe around the prevalence of part-time work as in some countries it is very rare and in some other countries almost the norm. Non-standard working hours can also offer opportunities for reconciling work and family life, but mostly for the higher socio-economic classes of society, and those with the highest skills.
The issue of GENDER EQUALITY cannot be uncoupled from the discussion on work-life balance. As women are a majority in the workforce, they are changing the rules of the previously male dominated labour market. Yet, as with any social and culture change, policies carry a stigma if they seem to be only addressed to a certain part of the population, and this way flexible or reduced working hours are not seen as also being for men.
Even though the conference focused specifically on what employers can do to make reconciliation easier, the discussion around the accessibility of CHILDCARE and other services came up regularly. Childcare provision seems to be seen as a measure of supporting working mothers, yet the lack of such services can also seriously compromise the career and work-trajectories of older women, who are grandparents and need to reduce working time or leave the labour market to help out with grandchildren. The two systems of leaves and childcare are interconnected, and have a profound effect on women’s working lives, especially those with unpredictable and irregular working hours, and especially single mums and those far away from other family support.
The LEADERSHIP of the organisation has a lot of responsibility in shaping a certain organisational culture, and it is often this culture that imposes norms and behaviour on its managers and workers. Unfortunately there are still many workplaces that penalise people who prioritise their family, or as a matter of fact other outside interests. The culture of the organisation is as difficult to change as the policy and legislative framework, and is especially at risk of not being sustainable due to change of leadership.
An overall message emerging from the conference was about the need to extend work-life balance policies beyond the reach of only the most highly educated, or those with top managerial jobs, supported with a lot of IT, that enables remote working. Combining or integrating work and family life is an absolute necessity if we want to affront the current demographic challenges. Unless we tackle the issue of working time, childcare and other care services and leaves systems, the existing inequalities will only grow.