A Fresh Start to Work-Life Balance
by Agnes Uhereczky
Let’s begin with a challenge. Find for me a working parent or carer who has not experienced some form of negative treatment from their boss or co-workers because of their caring responsibilities. This can range from sarcastic comments to outright demotion. I expect there are few.
This is work-life conflict—when the demands of one’s personal life become so heavy that they creep into one’s work domain. Work-life conflict cannot only lead to absenteeism, burnout, and financial pressures, but also a loss of productivity. So while care can indeed be a burden for employers, there is an economic rationale for contributing to a solution.
Where We Are
Action by the EU could help, but European initiatives are difficult when they touch on the diverging belief systems of member states. Work-life balance is one such touchy domain. The public consultation recently launched by the European Commission on addressing the challenges facing working parents and caregivers, intended to lead to action, will shed light on these differences. But public policies, legislative, and institutional frameworks need to be adapted to Europe’s major, ongoing demographic and societal changes, which challenge the way families live and organise their lives.
The consultation and accompanying Roadmap for legislative and non-legislative measures will provide a new forum for discussion of the different views on the distribution of caring and breadwinning roles. Even very recent public discourses in member states have not shied away from suggesting the primary role, if not the duty, of women is childbearing and caring. Unfortunately, this rhetoric is also hidden in workplace practices across the EU. The European Commission’s 2012 publication on the same subject states that "despite the existence of extensive pregnancy and maternity related rights, women are still discriminated against because of their pregnancy."
Yes, even in 2016 and beyond women will need protection from unfavourable treatment due to pregnancy and breastfeeding. Both men and women face barriers to reconciling their role as parents and productive, committed workers. This year was full of media reports about (mainly) Silicon Valley tech giants updating their parental leave policies in the US. However, achieving statutory leave in all EU countries should not take attention away from the daily struggles of families to balance work and care responsibilities.
What the How?
The public consultation covers the "what" and the "how" elements of work-life balance. The "what" is fairly straightforward; it includes childcare, long-term care services, family-related leave arrangements for both women and men, flexible working arrangements for women and men, and tax-benefit systems that make work pay for both partners. Every family wants and needs these kinds of services to be affordable, accessible, inclusive, and high-quality, both for the little ones and for the old and frail members of their families.
The "how" is trickier, however. Who can tell whether "strengthened EU-level policy guidance" or "EU-level benchmarks" will have a more meaningful impact? What is sure is that there need to be strong policies that protect both women and men from discrimination and unfavourable treatment for any type of caring they wish to and need to take on. They should enable men and women to take on these responsibilities across the life course in a flexible way and with a good level of financial support.
Measures also need to break down the stigma and perceived barriers to advancing the EU’s gender equality promise, its promise of the same access of women and men to meaningful careers and leadership positions.
Thus, the "New Start" initiative, or bundle of initiatives, is charged with a dual objective: protection and advancement via work-life balance measures.
A Matter of Work and Care
It is high time to tackle these issues. Not only is there a moral duty to protect European citizens from discrimination and ensure equality and equality of opportunities, but—as mentioned above—there is an economic case.
The new European initiatives need to focus on both work pressures and caring pressures. Only through fair and generous flexible work and leave policies will workers find and take the time they need to care. Many of these initiatives don’t even cost much money. In the global race for talent, it costs much more for a company or organisation to attract, recruit and train new staff than to retain existing talent and high-potential employees—even if they take time out for family duties.
But affordable, quality, inclusive, accessible, and (one can always dream) flexible services especially need to be in place to relieve some of the pressure on women, who still bear the majority of care responsibilities.
The deadline for submissions to the consultation is 17 February 2016. Hopefully many EU citizens will take time to reflect on their own lives and their own challenges—and respond.
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