This is a chapter from the The TUC Workplace Manual. Purchase the complete booklet
Workers in the UK currently work the longest hours in Europe, take the shortest lunch breaks and enjoy the fewest public holidays. Childcare is expensive and difficult to find, care for older people is of inconsistent quality and financial support during family-related leave is lower than in some other parts of Europe. The quest for higher productivity and the long hours' culture limit the effects of improved rights and can undermine equal opportunities policies. The TUC estimates that if all the unpaid overtime worked by the average employee were put together at the start of the year, it would be until mid-February before they started to be paid. This is marked by Work Your Proper Hours Day which takes place on that date around mid-February.
The changing workforce
The workforce is changing: more women are working and taking shorter breaks after childbirth; there are more single parents working or seeking work; people are working later in life and are likely to have increased responsibility for the care of elderly dependants as people live longer. In the twenty-first century workers will need to take a 'life course' approach to balancing the different aspects of their lives in order to maintain their skills, health and earnings potential.
Even where good policies exist, workloads prevent people from taking advantage of them. The 24/7 Survey carried out by Keele University in 2006 found that over half of the PCS members who responded worked above their contracted hours and a third had been unable to take their full holiday allowance. The Whitehall ll study of the health of civil servants demonstrated how conflict between work and family demands can lead to both physical and mental health problems. Rather than improving efficiency, this situation increases stress, reduces productivity and creates a greater likelihood of illness and absence.
Workers in the UK are protected by a variety of rights limiting working time and providing for leave and financial support in specific circumstances.
Parents and carers benefit from statutory entitlements to request flexible working and in respect of maternity, paternity, parental and adoption leave, and time off for dependants. Particular legal protections also apply to part-time workers, temporary workers and workers with disabilities
The main pieces of legislation are:
- Working Time Regulations
- Work and Families Act
- Employment Act
- Part-time Workers Regulations
- Temporary Workers Regulations
- Disability Discrimination Act
The right for employees to request time to train
From 6 April 2010, employers with 250 or more employees have had to seriously consider an eligible employee's formal request for time away from their core duties to undertake training. Since 6 April 2011 the right to request was extended to employees of all employers.
How employers benefit from good work/life balance arrangements
Although in some places employers use flexibility simply as a device to save money and undermine good conditions of service, there is a lot of evidence that employers can benefit more from work/life balance arrangements that are designed to support workers.
Good policies can improve recruitment, retention, health, morale, motivation and loyalty, give a better return on training investment and increase productivity - all of which reduce costs and result in a more successful organisation. They are not a luxury add-on, but the core of good management.
Work/life balance policies can make a crucial difference to equal opportunities.
Good policies, bad practice
Too often good policies exist on paper but not in practice. The consequences of job cuts and relocation on work organisation, staffing levels and workloads have stalled any attempt to eradicate the long hours' culture that pervades public and private sector organisations.
Managers receive inadequate training and support, have to work with untested procedures and IT systems and are put under pressure to meet targets rather than being encouraged to support and promote Work/life balance.
In some workplaces, private sector models are applied that result in unrealistic workloads, long hours seen as the norm, unachievable targets, little regard for health and safety and no adjustments for disability needs. Even long-accepted conditions of service, such as flexitime agreements, are being undermined.
Role of the union representative: work/life balance
Work/life balance can be linked to a Well-being at Work campaign. Unless members can resolve the conflicts between the demands of work, family, home and leisure they will be more prone to illness, less able to devote time to acquiring new skills and unable to perform to their full potential. Union representative can help members plan ahead and help them to request changes to take up different work patterns. They can make sure that systems are in place to prevent the pressure building up by ensuring that breaks and leave are taken and that members know about study leave and how to apply for flexible working.
Carrying out a flexible working audit
It is useful to find out what is happening in your organisation so that union representatives can plan their approach to both managers and employees.
It may be that informal flexible working goes on in some departments, with people working flexibly on an ad hoc basis with the consent of the manager, but that the HR department is unaware of this as there has been no change in contracts. It might also be the case that there is an agreement in place that is poorly communicated or not implemented properly. The following template will help you gather information about what types of flexible working are in use and identify possible barriers to take up by members or potential members.
Checklist: helping a staff member make a request for flexible working
Helping individuals to think about how they are going to manage their workload and about other implications could help them when they discuss proposed changes with their manager and teams. The union representative can help members to think through what they want to do. Some useful questions to ask themselves could include those outlined below.
Policy or programme
Do you have an agreement? If yes, is it national or local?
How well known is the policy or programme?
Action points for union representatives
Flexible working policies and practices
Managers' training on flexible working policy
Team training on flexible working
Compressed working week
Term-time working ( paid or unpaid leave during school holidays)
Work in transit
V-time working (voluntary reduced hours for fixed period)
Type of change
Do I want to make a permanent change to my working day?
If it is only temporary, how long do I want it to last?
If I work part time, how will my reduced salary impact on my pension and subsequent plans for retirement?
How will I manage if I earn less money?
Will the organisation benefit from the change? How will it help my Work/life balance? How will it help me cope better? Will it improve my performance?
Impact on the organisation
Will it cost the organisation more?
Will there be a cost saving or will the organisation have to employ additional staff? Will it help or hinder any pressure on office space?
The team and colleagues
Have I discussed the proposed changes with my colleagues?
How do they feel about it? Is there anybody who works flexibly already that I can speak to about how they managed the change with the team?
Will I be putting more pressure on other staff? Will there be enough cover?
Impact on the service
If I provide a service to clients or service users, can I still do that if I change my hours or place of work?
How could I make it work?
Would I be happy to share a job? How will I hand over work? Will I have to share a desk?
Working from home
What equipment would I need to work from home? Am I motivated enough to work on my own?
Am I organised enough to work from home? How will I make sure I keep up to date on office developments?
If I change my hours, will I need to organise other people to help with my responsibilities?
Have I already organised this?
What if it goes wrong?
Should I ask for a trial period in case it doesn't work out?
Advice to flexible workers
Share the following advice with members who are working or who want to work flexibly:
- When you're working flexibly or remotely, you will need to manage your relationship with your manager more proactively.
- Ensure that your job focus is clear - agree expectations and performance targets based on outputs rather than hours.
- Agree the parameters within which you can work flexibly - think about your objectives, as well as the team's and be aware of service users' requirements and the resources needed to carry out the job remotely.
- Agree boundaries and protocols - for example, do you intend to run personal errands during the day if you are working at home?
- If you intend to make a big change to your way of working, discuss it with your line manager and get their agreement - explain how your objectives will still be met and the impact any change will have on the team.
- From time to time, ask yourself if you feel your challenges, problems and achievements are visible enough to your manager.
- Plan and attend regular review and feedback meetings with your manager - make these a priority and ensure that they are maintained. Collect evidence to show what is working and discuss with your manager what may not be working and why.
- Give your manager the opportunity to share their perspective on how they believe the arrangement is working.
Department for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform
A useful flowchart and draft letters to apply for flexible working.
A national childcare charity that promotes high-quality affordable childcare for all.
Gingerbread is the charity that works nationally and locally, for and with single-parent families, to improve their lives.
Publication - Single Parents, Equal Families
Helpline: 0845 747 4747
Advice leaflets: Parents at Work The Right to Apply for Flexible Working: a short guide for employers, working parents and carers
Issued: 7 February, 2012