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Work-Life Balance: Backgrounder

Work-Life Balance: Backgrounder

In August this year, Labour Minister Margaret Wilson, announced government would establish a work-life balance programme to develop policies and practices promoting a better balance between paid work and life outside of work.

Prime Minister Helen Clark recently said the cutting edge policy for the future will be centred round the work-life balance area, looking at how people are balancing the demands of work and their life outside work

The next stage of the programme, the consultation phase, will begin in November, with an announcement from the Minister to be released, appropriately, around Labour weekend.

The following backgrounder may be of assistance to leader writers or columnists who may be considering this issue for Labour weekend coverage.


There’s a widely shared belief that New Zealand offers a special quality of life, that it’s a great place to raise a family and that we’re never far away from taking time out – that we are reasonably laid back and know how to enjoy ourselves. It’s an image that attracts people from all over the world to settle here.

Over the past 20 years in New Zealand the demands of the modern workplace have been perceived as impactingimpacted heavily on family life and the ‘community’ as a whole. Balancing the demands of work and home is an increasing source of tension. To maintain and enhance that special quality of life we lay claim to, we need to take stock of how we – as individuals, employers, communities and a country are shaping our lives and realising our potential.

What’s at issue is the extent to which people have real choices and control over their circumstances. Government believes that work is only one dimension of living and should not crowd out and distort family life, recreation and personal development.

The two biggest work-life balance problems are about those who don’t have enough work and the opposite, those caught in the all work-no life trap. In this second group, there’s the low paid people who need to work long hours to earn sufficient income, and the highly paid, who may feel coerced by workplace culture into working more hours than they want to.
New Zealand’s particular issues

There are nearly two million New Zealanders in the workforce. Our population is ageing and as the number of those of working age shrinks, it will become increasingly important to find ways to allow more people to actively participate in the workforce. We need to ensure as many people as possible can take part in work and we can attract skilled talent from overseas, while enhancing the quality of care for dependants and community cohesion. To do this, New Zealand has to reduce the barriers to work facing many people, especially those with caring responsibilities.

The far greatest numbers of companies in New Zealand are small enterprises. That means we face special challenges in optimising the way we work and balance our lives. We will need to be that much more innovative in our solutions so we can support and develop work-life balance in smaller firms. Provision of work-life policies may be more likely to be informal. Many may already have effective arrangements in place that aren’t recognised as ‘work life balance’ policies as such.

Women particularly know all about juggling family life with either furthering their careers or fitting in jobs to supplement the family income. It is now important that men be brought into that frame because they can also suffer from all work and no play, finding little time to spend with their children. The EEO Trust recently ran a Fathers’ Day survey which clearly showed men are saying they want more flexibility from work to be the kinds of fathers they want to be.

Work life balance has a lot to do with families but it’s not just about family issues. When work is impacting on life to the extent that it feels there is no flexibility or little choice, then it’s an issue, irrespective of age, gender or culture.

Progress for far

We are not starting with a blank sheet. A number of specific pieces of work with implications for work-life balance are currently under way across government. These include: the Taskforces on Pay and Employment in the public service and the public health and education sectors; amendments to improve the clarity of the Holidays Act; The Action Plan for New Zealand Women; further work on funding for early childhood education; and research into the extent to which childcare is a barrier to workforce participation for beneficiary families moving into employment.

The Paid Parental Leave policy has been in operation for a year now with about 14,000 families enjoying the benefits. Ninety-eight per cent of mothers who have got paid parental leave are taking their full 12 weeks leave. A third of employers surveyed recently said the policy had positive impacts for their business, especially enhanced staff satisfaction and the improved likelihood of retaining experienced staff. Only 10 per cent of employers had negative reactions. A recent analysis of work-life provisions in collective agreements in New Zealand showed that nearly half the agreements include the provision for compressed work weeks such a nine day fortnights, 79 per cent have a provision for part time work and 42 per cent of agreements provide for time off in lieu.

The EEO Trust each year acknowledges companies who have introduced flexibility into their workplace and who have achieved the dual goal of increasing productivity and effectiveness in their business while enabling employees to better integrate their work and personal lives.

The Trust’s Work and Life Awards have been running for six years and include examples of companies who demonstrate that work-life balance can be a win-win situation, for employers and employees. Benefits reported by companies include increased productivity, reduced absenteeism and sick leave and better chances of attracting and retaining high performing employees.

Not surprisingly, research confirms that if people are allowed to work the hours or working patterns that balance their work and home lives, they are likely to contribute more to the company they work for.

The kind of work-life improvements being explored include options like time banking, where can staff can put in more hours at one time to take time off later or career break schemes where staff can leave for a certain length of time and return to their own job. Childcare and eldercare facilities, home working arrangements, term time working and nine-day fortnights are all examples of how companies have introduced flexible work arrangements.

Government’s role

Government policy has a significant influence on people’s work-life balance. It sets the ground rules for how workplaces operate, how people receive income support and assistance finding work, how people are educated and how childcare is structured and funded, among other things. Therefore government does have a major role in promoting work-life balance.

An essential part of a sustainable economy is having a sustainable workforce that can balance their work and their lives. Work-life balance will contribute to both social and economic outcomes – it is an essential component of progressing these outcomes in tandem.

Government is looking for an overall outcome of improved work-life balance for all New Zealanders, but no decisions have been reached about the best way to achieve this. In the coming months, there will be a major stock take of the many ways in which government already impacts on people’s work-life balance and how best to coordinate those policies and practices.

We are also taking part in an OECD review of our family-friendly policies, which will give us a clearer idea of how our policies and practices compare with other countries.

A scorecard will be established as a way of measuring how well New Zealand is doing over time and in comparison with other countries.

There is a national economic and social need for New Zealand to address work-life balance. It makes economic sense. It can enhance productivity and increase the quality of work. It can increase job satisfaction, reduce labour costs and help companies retain staff longer. Equally important, work-life balance strengthens families and communities.

What other countries are doing

In 2000, the Oorganisationrganisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) commented that the provision of family-friendly policies by employers across OECD countries was ‘patchy’. But work-life balance is on policy agendas as governments recognise the costs of protracted stress on individuals and families, stress related health problems and lost productivity. Where governments have developed integrated programmes, these have tended to focus on work and family. The first wave of policies have been on quite specific initiatives such as childcare and paid parental leave. The focus is now broadening, as countries understand more about the complexity of demands on business and on individuals.

The next steps

The consultation exercise beginning in November will involve employers, employees, communities and individuals throughout New Zealand.

The aim is to accurately reflect the different realities that people face, and to get feed-back on factors that help people achieve some measures of work-life balance to identify examples of good practice that could be of use to others. The aim is to get people to start thinking about the issues and what helps them.

There will initially be consultation with key stakeholder and community organisations followed by discussions with a wider public, from February next year.

People will be invited to say what work-life balance means to them and to give their ideas about what things work well at the moment and what could work better.

Government will consider policy options, based on all the material gathered and the findings from the consultation.
The work-life balance programme is about looking for the smartest ways to ensure we are making the best choices possible. It’s about everyone who feels conflict in striking the right balance between work and ‘life’ – and at some time in our lives, that’s just about all of us.

Further Information

A website has been established providing information about the work-life balance programme and how people can get involved. It also includes links to other sites featuring work life balance issues.

The website, operating from Labour weekend is

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