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The happy medium

A good work-life balance can benefit both the individual and the business, explains Pauline Hudson-Evans, founder and director of Hudson Walker International

Time was when as an employer all you had to do was to pay a decent salary and four weeks’ annual holiday. Then little by little companies began to realise that to attract - and keep - good staff, they were going to have to do more than the statutory minimums. In came private healthcare and company pension schemes and for a long time these benefits, coupled with employment legislation regarding sick pay, parental leave, flexible working and so on, seemed enough.

But the world of work is changing, both the structure of the labour market and the types of work we do. More people are employed in the service sector than in manufacturing, changes in technology have had a massive impact on the workplace, we remain in full-time education for longer, and, critically, Generation Y (those born after 1980) has entered the workforce. They care less about salaries, and more about a working environment in which they can continue to learn, flexible working, social responsibility initiatives and time to travel. Even older, established workers are talking about career breaks and sabbaticals.

Business benefits

Good work-life balance policies and practices can help meet these changes as well as benefitting both the individual and the company. Business benefits include increased productivity, better recruitment and retention levels, lower absenteeism and a more motivated and satisfied workforce.

Many of our clients are well aware of this and have established excellent work-life balance practices. In our experience as recruiters, the practices that most appeal to job seekers include flexible working, subsidised healthcare or complementary health therapies such as massage or osteopathy, flexible benefits (employees choose from a selection of benefits that most suit their circumstances and buy, for instance, increased healthcare benefits, holiday days, leisure vouchers etc), subsidised gym membership or other fitness activities, and family-friendly policies. Some also offer community service days where employees can volunteer to work on local projects.

Staff retention

In terms of retaining staff, the most attractive practices for the employee include career breaks to facilitate personal development, consolidated or compressed hours - where contractual full-time hours are worked in four longer days instead of five days - term-time contracts, time off in lieu (for instance, when they have travelled on company business on a Sunday or worked 14 hour days during peak selling seasons) and, again, health and fitness benefits.

Other companies do not buy into any of this at all, fearing that employees will simply milk the company’s subsidies and then skive off on one too many duvet days. They think only the large corporate organisations can offer the on-site childcare facilities, the company fitness centre or have employees working from home a couple of days a week.

Retailers also worry how they can achieve good work-life practices when they need people on the shopfloor seven days a week and small companies wonder how they would manage if a key employee suddenly asked to take study leave.

Made to measure

As employers, we acknowledge that one size doesn’t fit all, but there are ways of achieving some measure of balance. In taking our own team’s wishes into account, we seem to have established a good work-life balance for both sides. For example, we actively encourage those who are parents to take the afternoon off to watch their youngsters compete in the school’s football match or appear in the nativity play. Antonia will only be aged 7 once to play an angel and it’s important that her mum is there to see her. We believe that while they are ‘their’ parents, they are our society’s future. One of the parents works from 10am to 4pm so she can do the school run.

Last year, we were able to accommodate another team member’s request to take nine months’ unpaid leave so he could realise a dream of world travel. From time to time we provide personal coaching from an outside mentor. Our employees have the right to take a reasonable period of time off work to deal with emergencies involving a dependent.

We make sure that extra hours worked are acknowledged by informal time off, so if someone’s on a promise of a romantic weekend in Paris and needs to be on the 14.25 Eurostar from St Pancras, we’ll push them out the door.

The benefits to a business of this interconnection of a productive workplace and quality of working life cannot be over emphasised and even small companies can put practices in place without additional costs. In fact, do it right and your profitability will definitely increase.

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