Diversity & Inclusion, Human Resources

How to push for work-life balance without making inclusion worse

Lydia Watson

Do you work to live, or live to work? Believe it or not, it’s a question that poses a false dichotomy. 

When you only know people in the context of the organisation you work for, it’s easy to forget that it’s only one part of their lives – no matter how many times you ask what they did over the weekend (because people rarely admit they binge-watched The Office for five hours, or had a blazing row with their partner). 

But that’s why it’s even more important to consider the work-life balance or ‘family-friendly’ policies your organisation offers – and their (sometimes surprising) impact on inclusion.

Work-life policies in the UK: the current state of play

When it comes to ‘work-life balance’, nation-wide policies have often focused on enabling family life – from entitlement to 18 weeks of childcare leave per child, to statutory parental leave – and specifically on the obligations of parents of younger children

Organisations can supplement these with their own policies, however. If companies are particularly large, in the public sector or a union, have a HR department, are focused on equal opportunities, or have more women than men in their workforce then they’re more likely to have family-friendly policies. 

Across the board, the most common work-life balance provision is part-time work – with 74% of employers offering it as an option. And evidence shows offering a range of flexible policies is a good idea.

3 reasons work-life policies are good for business:

1. Employees stay loyal and committed

Organisations with family-friendly policies saw a positive uplift in employee commitment – and the inverse was found to be true, too. It’s not hard to understand why: if you give your employees the freedom to enjoy a better work-life balance, they’ll feel more positively towards the organisation and stay loyal for longer.

2. They reduce sickness, absenteeism, and turnover

When the work-life split is off, there are higher absences from sickness – so making sure your practices and processes allow employees to balance this can reduce that, absenteeism, and ultimately turnover. There are only so many hours in the day, after all, so helping to reduce that pressure will boost wellbeing.

3. Productivity and performance is boosted

When you offer policies that allow for a better work-life balance, from balancing family responsibilities to other non-work commitments, productivity has been seen to increase – plus improvements to customer service and overall performance were observed, with the policies ultimately found to be cost efficient. 

But these policies can make inclusion issues worse…

  • There’s still a stigma about taking up these flexible policies

You can provide all the family-friendly or work-life balance policies you like – but if no-one actually takes advantage of them, what can you do? In many organisations there’s a stigma here – from the assumption that you’re shirking, to colleagues being frustrated by a subsequent increase in their workload. 

That means if people do make the most of the policies you offer, they might face negative consequences – from their social standing in the company, to their opportunities for progression (as these stigmas can go up to the senior management levels). 

  • Resentment from those without caring responsibilities 

Not everyone chooses to have children. For your employees who don’t go down that path, seeing their colleagues being offered flexible working patterns and other paid leave might cause resentment and the sense they’re being treated unfairly

That means those taking up these policies are affected, but also could lead to those not in that position feeling excluded too.  

  • Gender imbalances in take-up could increase inequality

During the pandemic, women did 78% more childcare than men – and although 72% of people now disagree that looking after children and the home is the responsibility of women, there’s still a consistent belief that mothers of younger children shouldn’t work full time – with 33% saying they should remain in the home full-time. 

There are two issues here. These attitudes affect the take-up of family-friendly provisions, making women more likely to use them than men – exacerbating the issue further. And that means not only will employers potentially be biased against hiring women, they’re also less likely to be put forward for promotion – meaning the imbalance of the sexes in managerial and C-suite positions will grow worse. 

How to encourage an inclusive work-life balance 

1. Lead by example in using flexible policies

Senior management and the leadership team should set an example. If a C-suite employee is seen to take advantage of life-friendly policies – from taking a decent stretch of parental leave, to do a period of part-time work – then people will know it’s ok to follow their lead. Not only that, they’ll know it’s possible to succeed while maintaining a balance.

2. Make sure absent employees are covered for 

Parental leave, part-time hours, four-day weeks, early finishes – these are all things that could help people to maintain a better work-life balance. But if their absence puts pressure on teammates, it could create resentment. Prevent this by arranging adequate cover for these employees, so no-one else suffers as a result.

3. Encourage those less likely to use flexible policies

To redress the gender imbalance in professional life, it needs to be crystal clear that flexible policies are for everyone. Only 26% of men think they’d be allowed to go part-time, compared to 48% of women, and less men than women think they could have time-off for childcare. Make it understand that that’s not the case.

4. Think ‘work-life balance’ not just ‘family-friendly’

Everyone deserves a decent work-life balance. Think ‘flexible’ instead of just ‘family-friendly’, and find ways to accommodate different types of work-life balance. Maybe someone wants to work part-time to continue their studies, or they need to care for elderly parents – listen to each case. Not to mention, it’ll have the positive effect of reducing bias against women of childbearing age – because of the assumption that they’ll soon leave to have children.

5. Get feedback on where any relevant issues lie

If you want to build a fairer, flexible workplace then you’re going to have to listen to your team. Ask your people through a survey about their experiences as employees, and how included they feel, so you can identify what policies to implement and if there are any discriminatory attitudes to stamp out. 

It’s time to start the conversation

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