Work-life balance must top the HR agenda

We need a new HR role if we are to develop an innovative flexible-working culture

Fostering a balanced working culture is a business imperative. In the corporate world work-life balance challenges and the lack of gender balance at senior levels go hand in hand. The single biggest factor persuading professional women to ‘off ramp’ is their inability to see how they might demonstrate an appropriate commitment to their career when combined with child or elder care responsibilities.

A survey by the American Psychological Association published earlier this year revealed that this is a challenge increasingly felt by younger men, as they struggle to balance work with a more involved version of fatherhood.

At the same time technology pushes us relentlessly towards a culture of being always available. Sustaining work-life balance has become the biggest challenge on the wellbeing agenda.

Thirty years of research has confirmed that a good work-life balance is essential for good physical and mental health, employee engagement and retention. Flexible working – when well implemented – can be a powerful means for supporting balance. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is just the latest body to add its voice to mounting calls for greater access to flexible working as a way of reducing pay gaps and helping women progress.

Given this context, why is flexible working at senior levels still a rarity?

At the turn of the century the Families and Work Institute (New York) developed a multi-stage ‘evolving business case for work-life initiatives’. Stage one is a ‘focus on childcare’. The business objective here is to recruit and retain women and support them while they combine work with caring for young children. Some of us in the HR community will have distant memories of introducing such ‘family friendly’ initiatives before any legislation existed. Stage two moves us to a broader work-life focus generally supported by appropriate HR policies. So far, so good.

It is at stage three where things begin to unravel. It introduces a focus on organisational culture that requires winning ‘hearts and minds’ to more balanced ways of working. Many employers have yet to get his far. HR policies remain little more than a translation of employment legislation, while issues are addressed on a piecemeal basis. Changing organisational culture in this context is no different from any other culture change initiative. It must be approached as a well-planned project designed to change expectations and managerial behaviours, and make use of role models to demonstrate changed behaviours.

Once this is under way we can move to stage four and focus on work processes. It’s here that we begin to design new ways of working at senior levels. We create jobs that make the most of the scarce skills we’re aiming to retain, while allowing employees to live balanced lives.

There is nothing in this model that requires skills outside our current HR toolkit. We’re familiar with organisational change processes and we’ve been trained to design jobs. What we haven’t done so far is approach this as a strategic priority. When I ask colleagues in corporate HR roles who is responsible for the flexible-working agenda, I get shunted from pillar to post. It might be part of D&I, or an aspect of wellbeing, or perhaps simply a policy response to the organisation’s move to agile working. So where does the centre of expertise for crafting quality flexible jobs lie? Who in your HR department do employees turn to when they need support to develop an innovative flexible-working arrangement?

Over the decades we’ve seen the emergence of many new HR roles. In National Work Life Week I’m proposing another one: head of balanced working, wellbeing and inclusion. This strategic role acknowledges three organisational truths:

  1. Support for work-life balance must be embedded throughout the employee journey and individual HR policies designed to fit together to this end.
  2. In many organisations there’s more going on ‘under the radar’ and we can harness this to move forward
  3. Work-life balance is personal and dynamic. It will change with our life circumstances. When we translate the management of work-life balance into a competency we can develop appropriate training to support employees and managers.

HR professionals have the necessary skills to achieve this – now let’s make this a strategic priority and be the ones to bring balance all the way to the boardroom.

Anna Meller is director of Sustainable Working