Question of the week: Should employers be forced by law to become more family-friendly?

Yes says Sarah jackson, chief executive of Working Families

If we have learned anything from the 20 years since the last major recession, it is that treating people well works. There are two key issues at stake. Will we emerge with a stronger and more productive economy, or return to the dark ages? Do we believe in work-life balance, or is caring about family life a luxury for the good times?

Let’s look first at the productivity arguments for family-friendly working. Good employers – large and small – recognise and act on the evidence: family-friendly policies bring benefits both to the business and to employees.

The recent extension of flexible working to parents of all children up to 16 years old was met with predictable doom and gloom from many in the business lobby. But regulatory impact assessments show that, even at a time of recession, business is set to benefit.

Flexible working retains and motivates employees, leading to savings in recruitment costs and reductions in absenteeism and sickness rates. Research shows flexible working leads to improvements in performance, both at the individual and the team level.

Quite simply, the costs of introducing the extension of flexible working are outweighed by millions of pounds of savings. If there ever was a time it is now, when every employer should be looking to maximise productivity.

Family-friendly policies can help get the best out of every employee. They can be used as a motivator when pay rises are scarce. And they help to ensure that employers attract and retain talent from the widest possible pool of people. Many good employers are looking at flexible options and sabbaticals as alternatives to redundancies. They are reaping the benefits.

But this is not how all employers respond to the recession. In calls to our helpline, we have seen an alarming rise in discrimination cases – particularly against pregnant women and those on maternity leave – and cases where employers are blatantly disregarding the legal framework put in place to protect families in work.

Discrimination is not only morally wrong it is appallingly short-sighted. There is a real danger that allowing employers to “get away” with treating employees badly will weaken our economy long-term. When the upturn comes, workers will vote with their feet. The costs of recruiting and training replacements will hit struggling businesses hard.

The downturn is also putting an intolerable strain on families. Our callers are concerned about mortgage repayments and debts, and the high costs of childcare. They are stressed by long and inflexible hours in work, with knock-on effects on their health and their children’s wellbeing.

Discrimination against mothers hits many families hard: in a third of households today women earn the same, or more than, men.

Family-friendly workplaces make economic sense. All the evidence shows engaged and active parenting leads to better outcomes for children – including in educational attainment.

Enabling parents to spend time supporting their children will affect the skills gained by the next generation. Employers – and government – should pause to reflect on whether our workplaces are fit for today’s families and the future society we want to build.

No says John Wright, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses

Everyone can see the benefits of flexible working – to the child, the parent and even the employer, who retains a valued, happier, and more productive member of staff.

Announced in early April, the new law entitles parents of children younger than 16 to request flexible working hours. Before, only parents of children up to the age of six were eligible.

But there are two main problems with the government’s latest employment reform.

First, this change comes at an unfortunate time, when small firms, particularly, are doing all they can to stay in business and should not be burdened by even more legislation. Second, a one-size-fits-all law does not take into account how small businesses already work. They are family-friendly by their very nature. Many are family-run, where the culture revolves around the needs of a family.

Research commissioned by the Federation of Small Businesses, and conducted by the University of Westminster at the end of 2008, showed that small firms are known and valued for their flexibility, with a particularly high proportion of part-time employees.

This indicates small firms take a more flexible approach to different working arrangements than, perhaps, other businesses might do. For obvious reasons, the relationship between an employer and employee in the smallest businesses can be less formal, and the statistics show that employees report a higher satisfaction level and lower incidences of work-related sickness.

In the end, a small business is a good place to work if you want to develop a good relationship with your boss, and be able to talk to him, or her, about re-arranging your hours. Traditionally, these sorts of arrangements have been easily made between employers and employees who have often worked closely together for years.

The figures also show that small firms are known for their flexibility in employing people who may find it harder to get work in bigger companies – including older people, those who have disabilities, and parents of small children who may all want to work part-time. According to the statistics, a third of the workforce of the smallest firms, with fewer than 10 employees, works part-time, while this is true of only 14% in the largest firms.

Legislation always puts an added burden on small businesses: new laws are often time-consuming and onerous to comply with. Small firms find it difficult to keep up to date with all the new hoops they have to jump through – and the time it takes is time taken away from the business. More than anything, employers find it unnecessary to be forced to fill out forms to formally show that they are doing something they have already been doing for years.

During a recession, businesses need to get on with doing what they do best and keep the economy moving.

Politicians must also move beyond the language barrier: while “flexible working” is the new buzz phrase, employers are confused by the term, which can include shift work, part-time working and working from home.

Small businesses are already family-friendly – flexible – employers, and don’t want to be landed with more form-filling and red tape in order to prove it.

What do you think?

Is the new family-friendly law which gives parents with children under 16 the right to request flexible working good or bad, particularly at a time of recession?


Richard Reid is the founder of Pinnacle Proactive, Specialising in the Employee Assistance ProgramStress ManagementStaff Retention & Absenteeism. Take a Proactive Approach to Growing Your Organisation & its People. For more info visit


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