Publications - Balancing Work and Family Life - Chapter 1


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Chapter 1 - Background and Introduction

1.1 Families research programme

As part of the Government's commitment "to put the family at the centre of all its policies", the Minister for Social, Community and Family Affairs, in Spring 1999, launched a new Families Research Programme "to provide grant aid to support research projects which have the ability to inform the future development of aspects of policy which relate to families and family services". In so doing he acknowledged that "there is little research into Irish families and family members and the challenges families face in maintaining their relationships and rearing their children... The findings from these research projects will contribute to the debate on the issues facing families today and help to develop and shape future policy" (Ahern 1999, p.1).

This Report presents the detailed findings of one of the studies supported under the first phase of the Families Research Programme introduced by the Department of Social Community and Family Affairs (DSCFA). The study was undertaken for the Department by members of the Research Team at the Institute of Public Administration from autumn 1999 to spring 2000. In presenting this Report, the support and encouragement of the Family Affairs Unit in the DSCFA throughout the course of the study is acknowledged gratefully. Gratitude is also expressed to those in the cross-section of commercial and non-commercial organisations, the trade unions and other representative bodies that contributed their views to this study. However, responsibility for the content of this report rests with the research team.

1.2 The need for research

In its Report entitled Strengthening Families for Life, the Commission on the Family (1998) stated that, "It is the Commission's view that change can be brought about only over time by a major change in our thinking and in the culture surrounding work and family life" (p.140). In line with Chapter Eight of the Commission's Report, this study seeks to explore and assess critically the impact of developments in the workplace to assist the reconciling of work and family responsibilities. In particular, the Commission's Report noted that "there is limited data available on the views of employers' organisations and trade unions on flexible working arrangements, the benefits of such practices to employers and employees or the evaluation of existing schemes in meeting employer/employee needs" (p. 138).

These matters are of immediate and pressing concern nationally. As with many other European countries, Ireland is rapidly becoming a nation of work rich and work poor families (see McKeown 1998). For those in employment, and especially dual-income households, the challenge posed by reconciling the growing demands of work with caring responsibilities outside the workplace is one of the dominant issues facing family life in modern Ireland. For employers, one of their most pressing concerns, in the current labour market, is the attraction and retention of quality staff. With this in mind, family friendly working arrangements can play an important role in any overall pay and benefits package. By drawing upon experiences within both the commercial and non-commercial sectors, as well as nationally and overseas, this study seeks to provide research evidence to help fill a gap in knowledge and indicate positive ways forward for policy makers, employers and employees alike.

1.3 The slow pace of change

When the important concerns expressed by the Commission on the Family (1998) about the importance of family friendly working arrangements are compared with those expressed by key commentators nearly two decades earlier, it can be seen that the pace of change in the development of such arrangements in the workplace has been exceedingly slow in Ireland and that there is absolutely no room for complacency concerning the future. In her benchmark study entitled, Women and Work in Ireland (1983), Fine-Davis stressed the need to encourage the introduction of flexitime, job-sharing and other forms of less than full time working, in addition to improved childcare provision, as essential steps to facilitate a more family friendly working environment for both men and women. "It is hoped that these recommendations will receive the serious attention they deserve. There is growing recognition that "only when the organisation of work is adapted to the needs of workers and their families in a way that does not deprive children of contact with their parents, women of equal opportunities for the exercise of non-mother roles, and men of the possibility of sharing in the home-care of their children, can equality become the condition of all in our societies" (OECD 1979, p. 126). In view of the fundamental changes occurring in sex role behaviour in Irish society, as has been the pattern in other developed Western societies, it is hoped that public policies in this sphere will anticipate and keep pace with these developments so as to ensure the optimum well-being of the women, children and families undergoing these transitions" (Fine-Davis 1983, p.229).

To address this continuing challenge, considerable emphasis is given in the current policy debate on the key role of 'family-friendly' initiatives in the workplace. In particular, and in addition to the on-going debate regarding the need for enhanced childcare provision, a range of flexible or atypical working arrangements have been developed in the public and private sectors, over the past decade and a half, which have a positive potential role to play in this respect. Such 'family friendly' arrangements in the workplace include flexitime, part-time working and/or jobsharing, term-time working. In line with the recommendations of the Family Commission Report, this independent study explores, and assesses critically, the impact of such arrangements in helping to balance more effectively the demands of work and family.

1.4 A diversity of families

At the outset, it is also important to review what constitutes a 'family' in the Ireland of the 21st Century, in order to determine the 'friendliness' or otherwise of different working arrangements. Assuming that Ireland follows a similar pattern to its European neighbours, then such a task is not as straightforward as it might seem at first sight. As Gillis (1997) points out, "Much about modern life is changing but one thing that never seems to change is the notion that family is not what it used to be" (p.1). In this case, evidence from other advanced economies indicates that, while the pace of change may vary from country to country, region to region and community to community, family forms are becoming increasingly diverse in character and complex in their inter-relationships.

"Ask most people what their mental image of a family is and they are likely to conjure up a picture of husband, wife, two children and in all probability a dog and a car! In fact, families are far more varied in their makeup. The adults will frequently not be married or have been married before. The family may be of an adult child living with an elderly parent, two sisters or brothers living together. The variety and complexity of family life is too great for simplistic legislation or prescriptive moralising" (Soley 1997, p. 215). The fundamental changes which have taken place in Irish society, and their implications for concepts of the family, have been the subject of considerable comment (see, for example, Fahey 1995). As O'Connor (1998) observes, "... even in our own society it is clear that despite the simplicity and attractiveness of familism at an ideological level, the family is by no means an unproblematic entity. Indeed, it is increasingly recognised that it is more useful to speak of families, rather than the family. In Ireland, perhaps the biggest challenge to traditional notions of the family has come from the increasing presence of lone parents" (p.119). For such families, the availability of family friendly working arrangements, together with affordable childcare, are critically important. As McCashin (1996) reported in his study, most lone parents experience significant levels of poverty but most wanted to work.

Lynch (1998) points out that, "Although the family based on marriage is held in high esteem, there is an on-going debate in all countries as to what constitutes a family, a debate which is undoubtedly stimulated by the fact that the marriage rate is declining in most Western European countries" (p. 627). Not surprisingly, therefore, after a major study of British families at the end of the twentieth century, McRae (1999) concludes that, "Britain today is a much more complex society than in past times, with great diversity in the types of household within which people live: one-person; cohabiting; families with children and families without; stepfamilies; lone parents - whether divorced or never married; gay and lesbian couples; pensioners. Much of this diversity has been gained at the expense of tradition and there has been a downward trend in the prevalence of certain types of family - most particularly, the traditional two parents plus dependent children" (p.1).

The future development of family friendly working arrangements in Ireland clearly needs to be responsive to the increasing diversity of family types and their dynamic character. Such developments also need to be gender sensitive and relate to carers and others regardless of the sex of the employee (see McKeown et al 1999). Family friendly working arrangements are not a women's issue, they are a people issue. As the Commission on the Family (1998) also made clear, its "recommendations... relate to the role of public policy in strengthening families and preventing family breakdown. Key issues for families and for marriage in the new century are supporting families with their parenting responsibilities; getting the balance right between employment and family life for men and women who now have too little time to themselves and their families; strengthening the role of fathers in family life, more sharing of household responsibilities; minimising the adverse effects of unemployment on families" (p. 184).

1.5 A working definition of family friendly working arrangements

Not surprisingly, administrative systems as well as national policies across Europe have had difficulty adjusting and responding to such rapidly changing family forms and concepts. As Rerrich (1996) points out, for example, "... social policy in Germany remains institutionally conservative. It is geared towards the family as the main provider of everyday care, not only for children but also for the handicapped and elderly as well. There has been practically no adjustment to dual-earner/dual-career families nor to single-parent family patterns by German social policy as more and more women enter the labour market" (p. 27).

In Ireland, for statistical and legislative purposes, definitions of the family primarily refer to marital, parental, hereditary and/or caring relationships (see Central Statistics Office 1997a, p. 10 and Employment Equality Act 1998). Whilst such relationships are likely to capture the vast majority of 'de facto families' in Irish society at present, it is important that any definition of 'family friendly' working arrangements is also sensitive to current and future diversity in familial relationships (see 1.4 above). Accordingly, for the purposes of this research, 'family friendly working arrangements' are defined as those workplace arrangements that assist employees to combine paid employment with their caring responsibilities and personal lives away from work. As Fisher (2000) rightly points out, all employees irrespective of their family situation or personal responsibilities need and want to have greater balance between their lives inside and outside work.

1.6 Research objectives and terms of reference

With this definition in mind, this study seeks to:

  • dentify the challenges and benefits to introducing family-friendly flexible working arrangements (drawing on best practice and research undertaken in Ireland and abroad);
  • identify the respective roles of public policy makers, employers and trade unions in taking forward such initiatives; and
  • provide scientifically based research evidence to inform the debate in this area and assist policy makers in identifying practical measures to further assist the development of family friendly initiatives in the Irish workplace.

The research proposal submitted to the Department of Social, Community and Family Affairs for approval under the Families Research Programme contained the following terms of reference:

  1. A detailed analysis of relevant national and international literature and research to identify conceptual frameworks and best practice approaches to flexible workplace arrangements and their impact on employers and employees.
  2. A detailed review of quantitative and qualitative research undertaken in Ireland and elsewhere to identify the effects on employers and employees of:
    the dual demands of working and family life; and
    the effects of the introduction of family-friendly initiatives.
  3. An informed analysis of the context within which family-friendly initiatives might be further developed, including a brief review of the relevant legal framework, the role and views of national trade unions, and the current policy approach.
  4. An exploratory analysis of the impact of family-friendly working arrangements in a number of selected commercial and non-commercial organisations in a range of industrial sectors.
  5. Based on the information gathered at each level of the research, a set of conclusions/recommendations will be put forward to inform the debate in this area and to assist policy makers in identifying practical measures to further consider the development of initiatives which would assist in strengthening the position of the family in the context of workplace related issues.

1.7 Research approach

To fulfil these terms of reference, the project's research team used both quantitative and qualitative methodologies. These included:

  1. Analysis of national and international statistical sources to seek to quantify the extent and character of existing flexible working arrangements.
  2. Analysis of national and international research material and policy documents to obtain a thorough understanding of the key factors influencing the development of such measures.
  3. The undertaking of in-depth discussions with key employer and trade union representatives of the impact of existing family friendly policies in the workplace; as well as to obtain their views on potential future developments.
  4. Case-study analysis of the first-hand experiences gained by a number of indicative commercial and non-commercial organisations in the development and promotion of such arrangements.

The resources available to the research team did not allow for the undertaking of a statistically representative national survey of employer, trade union and employee perspectives on family friendly/flexible working arrangements, in the public and private sectors. However, by the informed analysis of available secondary sources, supplemented by in-depth interviews covering a cross-section of different types of employment situation, the research findings presented here aim to reflect accurately the current position in Ireland. In drafting the recommendations for ways forward, the research team was also able to build upon considerable other experience in this area (see, for example, Humphreys 1983 and 1986; Humphreys, Drew and Murphy 1999 and Humphreys, Fleming and O'Donnell 2000).

1.8 Report content

After this introductory section (Chapter One) establishing the background and context for the study, as well as some of the key operational definitions:

  • Chapter Two identifies in more detail the types of specific working arrangement covered by this research study. Broadly speaking these fall into the categories of locational or temporal flexibility. It is also acknowledged, however, that new and emerging forms of flexible working arrangement could have a potential role to play in Irish firms and organisations seeking to adopt a 'family-friendly' approach in current labour market conditions.
  • Chapter Three then draws upon available research evidence to identify some of the main advantages attributed to flexible working arrangements from both the employers' and employees' perspective. It revisits the concept of the 'flexible firm' and identifies areas of potential resistance to change.
  • While noting the limitations of, and the need for improvement in the availability of data, Chapter Four examines the extent and character of flexible working in Ireland, within the context of the wider European Union (EU). The positions in the private and public sectors are reviewed and key issues emerging identified.
  • Chapter Five examines the changing policy approaches to flexible, family friendly working arrangements in Ireland and Chapter Six establishes the extremely important legal and administrative frameworks within which change in the private and public sectors will need to take place.
  • Drawing upon a detailed analysis of secondary sources as well as the in-depth interviews undertaken with employer and trade union organisations, and in a cross-section of individual public and private sector organisations, Chapter Seven analyses the contribution made by flexible working arrangements from a family-friendly perspective.
  • Finally, drawing upon all of the preceding analyses, Chapter Eight puts forward conclusions and recommendations to inform the debate in this area and to assist policy makers in identifying practical measures to consider further the development of initiatives which would assist in strengthening the position of the family in the context of workplace related measures.

Some of the key messages identified therein are summarised at the end of each chapter. A detailed bibliography, notes and annex are provided at the end of the report. In addition, an Executive Summary of the key findings is provided at the beginning of the report.

1.9 Key messages

Arising from this introductory analysis and discussion, the following key messages can be identified:

  • This Report presents the detailed findings of one of the first studies supported by the Department of Social Community and Family Affairs (DSCFA), under its Families Research Programme (1999).
  • In line with the recommendations contained in Strengthening Families for Life (1998), this study seeks to explore and assess critically the impact of developments in the workplace to assist the reconciling of work and family responsibilities.
  • By drawing upon experiences within both the commercial and non-commercial sectors, as well as nationally and overseas, this study seeks to provide research evidence to help fill a gap in knowledge and indicate positive ways forward for policy makers, employers and employees alike.
  • Looking back at developments over the past two decades, the pace of change in the development of such arrangements in the workplace has been exceedingly slow in Ireland and there is absolutely no room for complacency concerning the future.
  • For the purposes of this study, 'family friendly working arrangements' are defined as those workplace arrangements that assist employees to combine paid employment with their caring responsibilities and personal lives away from work. Such arrangements include flexitime, jobsharing, part-time working and term-time working.
  • The future development of family friendly working arrangements in Ireland clearly needs to be responsive to the increasing diversity of family types and their dynamic character. Family friendly working arrangements are not a women's issue, they are a people issue. All employees irrespective of their family situation or personal responsibilities need and want to have a greater balance between their lives inside and outside work.
  • This study focuses specifically on family friendly/flexible working arrangements in the workplace. Such arrangements can only form part of an overall family friendly policy that also addresses other key issues, such as the availability of affordable childcare.

Contents

Chapter One: Background and Introduction
Chapter Two: What are Family Friendly Working Arrangements?
Chapter Three: Why Work Flexibly?
Chapter Four: How Much Working is Flexible
Chapter Five: Changing Policy Perspectives
Chapter Six: Legal Perspectives
Chapter Seven: Workplace Perspectives
Chapter Eight: Key Issues and Challenges
Notes
Annex One Checklist for developing family friendly/flexible working arrangements in the workplace
Bibliography

Last modified:07/11/2008
 

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