Work-life balance is a bit of a buzzword these days, particularly since Tony Blair made it big business by launching the DTI’s WLB campaign back in 2000. The idea is to make sure that no-one is prevented from working due to their domestic commitments, gender, age etc. Hence the introduction of a raft of ‘family-friendly’ policies such as flexible working, changes to maternity and paternity leave etc. All of which are particularly relevant to working women, especially those of us with families and domestic commitments. For some, WLB means a lot more than just going to the gym a few times a week after work!
All well and good – however, it comes at a cost; usually to employers, who are so often the piggy in the middle. The costs and hassle of providing, if not enhancing, various family-friendly and discrimination policies and procedures can often be prohibitive for employers, especially small businesses with limited money and resources. But it’s not all doom and gloom – there are benefits for employers, as enabling staff to have a better WLB can help develop better motivation and loyalty. So, plenty of room for return on the investment!
The difficulty is often that people just don’t know what options they have to help balance their work and personal life. So, whether you are an employee, employer or entrepreneur, it’s important to know your rights and responsibilities regarding WLB issues. Here is a round-up of the key WLB issues to be aware of…
- Flexible working
Flexible working can be any kind of arrangement, from homeworking, to changing start/finish times, to term-time working, to compressed hours. The place, time or terms of your job could potentially be adjusted to suit you.
If you have children under 6, or are a carer for someone living with you, and have been with your employer for at least 6 months, you’re entitled to request flexible working. But only to ask – there’s no entitlement to actually get it! That said, your employer can only say no on certain business grounds, and you can appeal against the decision if you think they’re just being evil.
You can only ask for flexible working once a year though, and there is a fairly detailed request process to go through involving written requests, meetings and other shenanigans. The onus is on you as employee to make your case, so be sure you think it through beforehand!
- Maternity and paternity leave
Fairly epic areas, but in a nutshell… Anyone can have a full year’s maternity leave, but the amount you get paid depends on how long you’ve worked for your employer. If you go back to work before the year is up, the baby’s dad can have the rest of your time as paternity leave (from 2 weeks to 6 months). This is in addition to their basic entitlement of two weeks just after the baby is born – so they can get some practice in nappy-changing!
While you’re on maternity leave, you can have up to 10 ‘Keeping in Touch’ days, where you can get full pay for going into work. This is for work reasons though, such as training, meetings etc. – not ‘show-off-new-baby’ visits!
If you adopt a child, adoption leave broadly follows the same patterns as maternity and paternity entitlements. And when you come back to work, don’t forget you can make use of the below entitlements as well, to make it easier to balance the new arrival and your job.
- Dependency leave
Anyone with dependants (children, elderly parents, sick hubby etc.) is entitled to unpaid time off in an emergency – but it does have to be an emergency, so waiting in for the gasman doesn’t count! The leave is to allow you to make longer-term arrangements. So for example, if your childminder cancels on you at the last minute, or your child is sent home sick from school, or your other half has an accident, or someone dies and you have to arrange a funeral. There is no set amount of time allowed, it is just expected to be ‘reasonable’ (that catch-all legal term). So worth brushing up your negotiation skills!
- Parental leave
If you have a child under 5 and have been with your employer for at least a year, you’re entitled to up to 13 weeks’ unpaid time off to look after each child. Useful if, for example, your child is starting school and you want to be around to help them settle in! The catch is, you can only take a maximum of 4 weeks a year, and the time has to be taken in week-long blocks, not odd days.
You need to give your employer 21 days’ notice, but they can postpone your leave for up to 6 months if the business just can’t cope without you (so don’t make yourself too indispensable!)
- Part-time working
Don’t worry too much about missing out on opportunities, training, promotion, benefits etc. if you decide to drop your hours to part-time. There’s a set of regulations in place that make it unlawful for employers to treat staff worse than others just because they’re part-time workers, unless they have a very good business justification.
So that’s a potted version of key legal issues, but enterprising employers can also ensure WLB solutions in other ways, such as allowing study leave, compassionate leave, time off for volunteering, extending flexible working arrangements to all employees rather than just those with caring responsibilities etc. If you’re an employer, it’s worth having some defined policies in place to ensure consistency and fairness.
And whatever your role, it’s also worth getting some professional advice and guidance on all of the above to make sure you know the full picture legally, and get that balance right!
About the Author: Tara Daynes FCIPD, MSSP, is a fully qualified freelance HR and training consultant with 16 years’ post-graduate experience. She is a qualified Employment Law Paralegal & a registered Investors In People adviser/assessor. Specialising in employment law & business training, Tara helps organisations improve their business performance through how they manage & develop their staff. This includes start-up HR functions for SMEs, writing people management policies and procedures and staff handbooks, and providing training for line management and staff on key issues. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.taradayneshr.com for more information.
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