Work/Life Balance: Employers find offering assistance benefits business

Work affects life and life affects work - and companies that realise that simple truth are reaping the benefits.

IN DECEMBER, St George Bank announced a suite of new measures to help staff achieve a sensible work/life balance.

The list included 13 weeks paid parental leave; an optional six weeks additional annual leave; the opportunity to work four years and take the fifth off for a career break; the option of working part-time after returning from parental leave until the child starts school; and flexible hours for staff over 55 to ease the transition to retirement.

St George Bank human resources executive Brett Wright said it was more than obvious that work affected home life and home affected work.

"If someone's got issues at home, what happens is, they've got issues at work, and it affects their performance there," Mr Wright said.

"And if they've got issues at work, then it goes home and it causes some grief in the home life.

"I think if you get people who are happy in both of those environments, happy people come to work, they do a better job, they present a better face for the company, they're better with customers."

To ease the burden on working parents, St George has increased paid parental leave from eight to 13 weeks after the birth of a child. The leave is available to men and women, so long as they are the baby's primary caregiver.

Staff members in full-time roles have in the past been allowed to go part-time after returning from parental leave until their child's second birthday. That part-time provision has now been extended to the child's sixth birthday.

Mr Wright said staff could return to their original full-time position up to the child's second birthday, but between the second and sixth birthday St George guaranteed a comparable full-time position.

"If the world changes and the job changes and they want to come back, we just say, look, here's another position, similar grade, and they've got the right to accept that if they want," he said.

"If someone's been there four or five years and they know the place … all that investment we've made in them, it's crazy to lose them in a tightening labour market," he said.

Mr Wright said there was similar logic behind giving staff the option of working for four years, and taking the fifth year off as a career break.

"We do lose a resource for a while and in a lot of cases we have to backfill that resource while the person's off," he said.

"These days it's getting harder and harder to get good people, and by doing something like that you buy some really good loyalty, and when they come back, they're up to speed."

"These days I think people want more and more flexibility, and if you don't provide that you'll just lose them full stop."

Another measure that impacts all staff, but particularly parents, is the option of buying an extra six weeks leave a year.

Mr Wright said the leave could be used for things such as an overseas trip or for study.

"The reason we picked six weeks was, most states have up to 10 weeks school holidays, so you get your four weeks annual leave, and a lot of people struggle with childcare in school holidays," he said.

Older workers are also benefiting from the new St George initiatives.

Mr Wright said some people had trouble adjusting when they suddenly retired from working full-time.

"What we're trying to do is provide people with the opportunity to phase into retirement, so it's not such a shock to the system and at the same time, it provides an opportunity for us to retain skills into the future," he said.

"They might work two or three days a week for a year or so, or two years … and so they're able to start doing some of the retirement things that they want to do, but at the same time when they do eventually stop work, it won't be from five days a week to zero."

Initiatives like those being taken at St George are significant.

Two Australian surveys last year found work was encroaching on employees' private lives.

Researchers commissioned by Citrix Online surveyed 468 workers and found: 69% of full-time workers had to be accessible during holidays or on their days off 74% of full-time workers had gone into work during holidays or on their days off 82% of those with children had to go to work during holidays or on their days off.

A survey by found: 79% of workers took work calls outside hours 72% checked work emails on weekends or holidays 66% worked more than 40 hours a week 84% had work-related health issues.

Mr Wright said that with today's technology, even when employers did not demand 24-hour contact, some staff could not help themselves.

"The thing people have got to learn to do, they've got to switch off, because if they don't they're not fresh and I think sometimes … they get stale and they won't be as good at their job in normal hours," Mr Wright said.

IBM also places a strong emphasis on work/life balance. The company has seven work and life flexibility principles, and a series of work and life flexibility programs.

The programs including a provision - like that at St George - for employees to purchase between one and four weeks extra leave; a job-sharing policy with a job-sharing register for employees to note their interest; and a part-time work policy.

IBM diversity manager Kylie Nicolson said that when managers advertised a job vacancy on the company's internal system, they must tick a box to say whether or not part-time or job-share arrangements would suit the position. If the answer is no, they must state why.

"Our employees need to be increasingly flexible for whatever reason," Ms Nicolson said.

"It's not just for parents. It can be for elder care. It can be just where you are in your stage of life that you need flexibility and we need to respect that."

Ms Nicolson said employees in turn were required to be flexible about their working arrangements.

She said because IBM often worked with international clients in different time zones, employees sometimes had to be available for telephone calls out of hours.

"What it enables you to do is to let people meet the needs of the business as they see fit, but also it allows them to be flexible to meet their personal needs," she said.

This article first appeared in Business Community Intelligence, February 2007