Flexible work arrangements are increasingly seen as key in helping women and men strike a better balance between work, private and family life. In a recent Eurobarometer survey, nearly half of the Europeans said more flexible working hours would be their favourite measure for a better work-life balance. Hoverer, only one third of all European companies offer some kind of flexible working options.
The issue was discussed at a workshop organised by the European Commission in the framework of the European Alliance for Families. Held on 25 October in Brussels, the workshop on the topic “Time credit schemes and working time flexibility for a better reconciliation of family and work life” brought together representatives of ministries of EU countries, European Commission and the private sector.
Presentations illustrated examples of national flexibility schemes in Belgium, the Netherlands and in a German company.
Jessie Vandeweyer of the Free Univerity in Brussels outlined the key elements of the Belgian ‘scheme. The system allows employees to take up to one year’s leave from work, or significantly reduce their working hours, without breaking their employment contract or endangering social security rights to look after a child or a disables relative, to study or to travel. The idea is to give people time for themselves at some point in their career, so that they stay longer in the labour market.
Employees who use the scheme receive compensation for their reduced income based on their age and the number of years that they have spent working for their current employer. They receive a flat-rate benefit ranging from €95 per month for those who decide to work a 4-day week to €532 per month for those who take a career break after working for a company for 5 years.
“At the moment the scheme is used only by 5% of the Belgian working population, but the participation is rising”, said Ms Vandeweyer. She stressed that the scheme is particularly popular among women under 50. In 2009, two thirds of all people who took the leave were women, and most of them took the leave to look after their children. Men take the leave mostly at the end of their career. They usually reduce their working hours as a transition towards retirement.
“Working part-time is a way of life in the Netherlands”, stressed Mrs Wil Portegijs, from the Dutch Institute for Social Research. “75% of women and 25% of men work part-time”. She stressed that employers are mostly open-minded when it comes to part-time work. There is a lot of flexibility to organise working time and the employees are satisfied. Asked why they work part-time, Dutch mothers of young children cite insufficient childcare places and the lack of sharing of house work with their partners. The Dutch government is trying to encourage women to work longer hours. A government taskforce has been set up to that end.
Mrs Portegijs also talked about the ‘the life-course savings scheme’ that the Dutch government introduced in 2006 to further help employees reconcile their work and private life. The initiative creates flexibility over the life course by allowing workers to save, untaxed, 10% of their annual income up to 210% maximum to finance a period of unpaid leave in the future. Employees can use the scheme to take various forms of unpaid leave such as parental leave, educational leave, sabbaticals or leave preceding retirement.
However, Mrs Portegijs said the scheme has not been a great success so far. “Only 4% of all employees take it and they are almost all women. It’s partly because it not very well compensated and also because it’s very complicated to apply” she added.
Gunther Olesch, from Phoenix Contact, a German company with offices worldwide, gave an overview of the family-friendly measures offered to its employees. These include a range of flexible-working possibilities, including teleworking, reducing working hours or adapting the work schedule to the employees’ needs. The company also offers on-site childcare services in all of its European braches and encourages men to take parental leave. In 2010, over 40% of male employees took parental leave, said Mr Olesch.
The second part of the event was devoted to a discussion on the level of flexible working in EU Member States and possible ways to improve the situation. Most country representatives said flexible working was not common in their countries. Some governments are taking measures to increase work flexibility (Italy, Estonia), but employers in most countries are not very willing to introduce flexi-work and negative stigma follows people who choose to reduce their working hours. It was also pointed out that reduced working hours mean less income, and that only employees with partners with a second salary are more likely to work-part time.
Participants welcomed the efforts of companies wishing to develop their policies to improve the work-life balance of their staff. They stressed that such ‘family-friendly’ companies needed to be encouraged. As regards ‘home office’ and teleworking, it was stressed however that it was vital that such options do not become a trap where the workers – mainly women – would be working at home while having at the same time to look after the children and care for the household.
Participants also agreed that it was key to look at flexibility from a life course perspective and modernise social protection systems to this effect, while guaranteeing their sustainability through other sources of funding than employer and worker contributions.
Finally, it was concluded that in the current economic climate, a very big shift towards more flexible working was not realistic. But participants agreed that there is scope for improving the situation and try to encourage more companies to introduce flexible working.