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'Work-life balance' debate terms questioned

Canterbury Manufacturers’ Association.
Media Release.
27 July 2006.

The Canterbury Manufacturers’ Association says that while flexibility in workplace patterns can benefit both employer and employee, the Association questions the whether the debate concerning ‘work-life balance’ is being conducted on the right basis. “In my mind, the way the question is framed polarises “work and life” suggesting the need to trade off one against the other, perhaps it is better to see work as one of the many components that determine a balanced life”, asks CEO John Walley.

“There is ‘no-one-size-fits-all’ objective characterisation of a balanced life. An arrangement that is suitable for one individual including the arrangements with their employer will not necessarily work for another or even the same person and their employer on another occasion. So efforts to determine the level of ‘work-life balance’ for people in a generic context through regulation are doomed at the outset”.

Mr. Walley suggests that the issue requires discussion in the workplace. “Each individual has the responsibility to try and optimise how the various components of their life interact, over time they will change as will the needs of the workplace. This is a matter for discussion not regulation.

“For some people, work has greater significance than it does for others and the hours and effort they apply to their job will differ from those around them. For everyone, as life progresses, demands and interests change in type and degree.”

What is the right solution or balance is subjective – how can this be regulated? It is a matter for each person to determine as best they can and regulation will not help. Simply sending the message that work and life are polarised extremes is not helpful.

“The role an individual has within a firm should be considered in this debate”, says Mr. Walley. “Finding ‘balance’ and making changes to workplace patterns for one person may have ramifications for those around them. If an employee changes their pattern of work does this mean that all other employees are entitled to do so as well? A firm’s operational and workplace structure may be able to accommodate the odd change but not changes that effect larger numbers of people without impacting competitiveness”.

Having made a decision to allow a change to a working pattern Mr. Walley says that firms need to be able to reinstate the earlier pattern without involving the Employment Tribunal.

“The Tribunal has an important role to play in this process but it does not have to be the decisive one”, says Mr. Walley. “The Tribunal is qualified to judge on employment matters but not the wider business issues that affect a firm’s performance. Once changes to workplace patterns are made they should be subject to continuous review and a firm should be able reinstate previous working patterns if the business situation requires it”.

“Finding a ‘balance’ within a person’s workplace patterns is important to them and their employer but the requirements and competitiveness of the business needs to be considered in this debate. True flexibility works both ways”.


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