'Mrs Fixit' plays happy families at work

4th September 1998 at 01:00
SANDRA NUTT spends most of her working week making sure her fellow employees are happy.

In the past two years, she has taken on the role of company welfare officer. If staff have problems, whether childcare, conflict at home or the need for compassionate leave, they come to her. She even visits retired staff at home. "I've become a Mrs Fixit, really," she said.

This role has helped her employer, pharmaceutical company Merck Ltd in Poole, Dorset, win an award under a new Family Friendly accreditation scheme to help staff reconcile pressures of work and home life.

The programme has been pioneered by Dorset Training and Enterprise Council for the past two years.

Forty companies in the county hold the award, and the scheme has now been adopted by neighbouring TECs.

Merck won with a range of policies, including good childcare provision, paternity leave, private health insurance and giving time off to study for professional qualifications.

"One of the main benefits is that we have retained very highly skilled personnel because of the flexibility we are able to offer," said Ms Nutt. "We don't just write policies and forget about them. We carry them out."

The Family Friendly award operates similarly to Investors in People. Trained assessors go in and talk to management and staff, to gauge how the company helps staff meet conflicting demands at work and at home.

Sue Levett of Dorset TEC said the new award evolved partly in response to changes in working practices, an increase in the number of working mothers, and in families dependent on joint incomes.

"We're doing this on the basis that it has to improve company performance, " she said. "As a company you take account of technological changes and therefore you invest in state of the art equipment. But you've also got to realise that your workforce has changed. Everybody has more family responsibilities.

"In a nutshell it's a company-based programme which involves a more positive attitude on behalf of the organisation towards its workforce.

"And it recognises the need and benefit of balancing work and home pressures to a mutual advantage."

Training and enterprise councils in Wiltshire and Devon and Cornwall have adopted the scheme, and Dorset TEC has had interest from nine others, as well as companies from throughout the UK.

Hill View primary school, Bournemouth, has just been awarded Family Friendly status and receives official accreditation in September.

The school was praised for its policies, including its flexible approach to staff, support for those with problems and making personal counselling available. Roger Lamb, the headteacher, also allows staff to bring their own children in on in-service days.

Was the Family Friendly award a useful exercise? "I think it is valuable, " he said. "It's not heavy on people's time and resources to set up and the process of being assessed is a relatively gentle one. The number of people that it involves and the taking away from work that it involves is relatively minor.

"The other plus for me is that I hope I'm doing the right thing. Then somebody comes along and says you are doing it - here are some things that might help you to do it even better. So it's a clarification perhaps for one of those areas which is a little bit cloudy.

"I had looked into Investors in People, but I thought it was too demanding on staff time. And Investors in People sounds really serious stuff. But family friendly? Most people can understand that can't they?"

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