More to life than work work work

3rd March 2000 at 00:00
Encouraged by the Prime Minister, we are supposed to be putting the family higher in our priorities. Neil Merrick explains how colleges can comply.

Not all employers like to admit it, but staff lead hectic lives outside as well as inside the workplace. Their jobs may be important to them, but they normally have other things that occupy their lives. Later this month Tony Blair will launch a campaign to encourage employers to acknowledge that workloads need to be balanced against workers' outside commitments. The Prime Minister will tell managers they should put family-friendly policies at the top of their agenda.

This does not mean catering merely for women with young children; fathers also have the right to spend time with families, while an increasing number of adults care for elderly relatives who might have complicated medical needs.

To some extent, the agenda is being driven by recent legislation which extends paid maternity leave, gives men and women the right to unpaid parental leave and requires employers to give all workers time off when domestic emergencies arise. Employees looking to cut their workload are given limited protection by the working-time directive, while part-time staff now have the same rights as full-timers (see box overleaf).

But some FE managers believe that colleges should go beyond these minimum requirements and develop model employment policies that motivate staff and respect their wider commitments - just as some already do.

"There is good practice in the sector in valuing people and recognising the need to strike a balance between work and home life," says Rosemary Varley, director of personnel at Blackpool and The Fylde College. She is a member of a new national joint working group on family-friendly policies set up by college employers and unions.

Blackpool already offers new fathers five days' paid paternity leave while employees facing emergencies at home are entitled to up to 10 days paid leave. Both policies go further than new legislation, which requires employers to provide such leave - but unpaid.

The college also tries to avoid giving lecturers timetables that clash with their home commitments. Since family-friendly policies were first adopted two years ago, absenteeism has fallen among both teachers and support staff.

"We have a policy which enables people to have time off for goodreasons rather than abusing the sick system," says Ms Varley. "The reaction of people when they arrive and attend induction programmes is that they think it's brilliant."

Last October the Institute for Employment Studies published research that showed there is a strong business case for family-friendly policies in all employment sectors and among companies of all sizes. Benefits include greater productivity among people working flexible hours, less casual sickness and greater retention of staff.

Stephen Bevan, ssociate director at the institute, says the growth of family-friendly policies is inevitable, not only because of new legislation. "More people are delaying childbirth until they are older and therefore are more likely to demand working arrangements so that they can juggle work and home life," he explains.

Colleges are, of course, no different to other employers in wishing to recruit top-quality staff. In some parts of the country, skill shortages and falling unemployment mean new staff often demand packages that give them the flexibility to cope with pressures at work and home.

"Employers looking for skills which are not readily available are having to adjust the way they organise work and make an offer to employees which allows them to accommodate their families and work," says Mr Bevan.

Four years ago, Dorset Training and Enterprise Council set up the family-friendly assessment and accreditation programme for employers wishing to demonstrate they recognise pressures facing staff outside work. The programme, which leads to an award in the same way as schemes such as Investors In People, is run by Family Friendly UK, a company set up by the council to assess and accredit employers. Colleges have only recently signed up for the scheme. The first to have gained a Family Friendly award is Salisbury in Wiltshire (see case study overleaf).

Sue Levett, director of Family Friendly UK, says the aim is to ensure employers are aware of changes in the law. It shows them how they can achieve business objectives through more enlightened personnel policies. "A lot of it is common sense," she adds. "It recognises that demographic changes have impacted on the workplace at the same time as the Government is driving employers to achieve a better balance between home and work ."

Jocelyn Prudence, director of employment policy at the Association of Colleges, hopes the national working group will demonstrate to colleges the strong case for family-friendly policies. "We must make sure that minimum standards are being implemented but we also want to look beyond that and see where colleges have adopted innovative practices."

Sue Berryman, an assistant secretary at the lecturers' union Natfhe, says teaching staff are worse off now than under the Silver Book agreement that laid down local authority pay and conditions. That allowed lecturers who worked evenings time off the next day.

But while she welcomes moves towards family-friendly policies, there is a danger that the extension of parental and carers' leave will only highlight the glaring gap between the rights of FE staff in regular employment (whether full or part-time) and the casualised agency staff brought in to cover for them. "Colleges should be employing properly paid staff and only using agency staff for short-term purposes, such as covering posts when employees are on leave," says Ms Berryman.

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