Work Life Balance: Why Employers Should Not Tip Scales

Last week was National Work Life Balance Week. The event, run by the Working Families charity, is an attempt to raise awareness about the benefits of flexible working.

For many employees, however, achieving a balance is difficult. Legal protection from long working hours is, sadly, relatively limited. The Working Time Regulations on the face of it prevent working weeks of over 48 hours. However, asking employees to opt out of these is all too easy for employers and is typically something employees are asked to do on their first day of employment if not in their employment contract itself. Even if employees have not opted out, managers or those with a certain amount of autonomy and control over their working hours will be exempt from many of the protections of the working time regulations, including limits on working time. In reality, the appearance of control will be illusory for those managing client expectations or tight deadlines.

Since June last year, all employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service have been entitled to request flexible working. However, this is only a right to request different hours – it is not an entitlement to receive them. Whilst an employer must deal with such a request reasonably, there are eight grounds on which they can be refused, including a detrimental impact on ability to meet customer demand and the burden of additional costs.

In reality, any hard and fast limits on working time would likely prove to be unworkable for many businesses. However, neither employees nor employers should ignore the risks of regularly exceeding sensible working time limits. Studies have suggested there can be serious health implications for employees working long hours and ultimately, a stressed workforce is likely to be less productive and have higher levels of absenteeism, not to mention the costs of any personal injury or PHI claims. This is a fact that employers increasingly seem to be recognising; for example, the Working Families Top Employers Benchmark report suggested that Cafcass saved over £1.4m in sickness absence by introducing flexible working.