What exactly is work-life balance?

1st January 2004 at 00:00

Teachers are entitled to a better life, says Margaret Adams. But how do you know when they have achieved it?

Last year's workload agreement gave teachers the right to better work-life balance - now it's up to heads and governors to deliver it.

A poll in last week's TES suggests that thousands of teachers are unimpressed with efforts to cut their workload: nearly half have yet to feel any benefit.

The problem is that heads and governors may take the agreed action - transfer routine tasks to support staff, ensure teachers have non-contact time and so on - yet staff will still be dissatisfied.

Why? Because "work-life balance" is a subjective and ill-defined concept.

Only individual teachers can decide if they have achieved it, and no head can persuade them otherwise if they are convinced they have not.

So demonstrating that you have made progress is a real challenge. Hopefully the six tests below will help you to decide if you are getting the balance right.

Does your school have a work-life balance policy?

Have you discussed work-life balance with staff and agreed what you want to achieve? Have you decided what work-life balance means? Is it, for example, about improving morale, reducing working hours, dealing with stress, or improving retention of staff? Have you defined measures that will assess progress? Does every one understand your approach?

What progress have you made on introducing flexible working options for staff with children?

Since April 2003, everyone responsible for raising a child aged under six or a disabled child under 18 has had the right to ask for flexible hours - and to have that request taken seriously. Are you allowing people to vary their hours so they can deal with their responsibilities at work and home? Have you established a fair and consistent approach to dealing with requests for flexible working, and published criteria for granting these? Are you giving everyone the chance to work flexibly or limiting it to the groups specified by law (the Employment Act 2002)? And how will you defend a rejection if a staff member takes you to an employment tribunal?

Test three: do you have a home-working policy?

When people ask for flexible hours, they usually ask to work at home for part of the week. Have you reorganised timetables and non-contact time to allow this, or introduced different starting and finishing times? Have you established a policy about meetings, whether they can be called on an ad hoc basis and what the rules for attendance are - especially for those who work at home often? Have you used tele-conferencing or video-conferencing so people don't have to attend meetings in person?

Test four: are you a family-friendly employer?

The Employment Act 2002 gave parents (including fathers), and guardians, leave entitlements to to look after children. Does your school encourage parents to take this? Or do staff feel pressured to return to work early? Have you set up strategies for coping with people taking leave, or are you just hoping they won't ask?

Are you supporting your managers with new ways of organising work?

Do your managers understand the need to change how they manage teams? Have they received training? Are they helping staff avoid excessive hours? Have they learned to support people working flexibly - while still ensuring the work is done? Do your managers help people use their time effectively and only undertake tasks within the scope of their jobs?

Can you demonstrate that your efforts are leading to better work-life balance?

Simply asking people about their work-life balance will produce subjective responses. You should specify work-life balance objectives at the outset and evaluate your progress against these. Have you, for example, reduced absenteeism? Are fewer people working excessive hours?

And finally, spare a thought for yourself: how are you doing with your personal balancing act?

Margaret Adams is a former teacher and author of The work-life balance trainer's manual (Gower) see www.gowerpub.com

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