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employment

March 2014

How Family Friendly is your Workplace?

Is being a working parent a right? Or a lifestyle choice that should get no other consideration other than current legislation offers? We asked Ni4kids readers 'what's your opinion?'

There’s no doubt that in terms of employment law to support working families we’ve come a long way from the 1960’s and the equal opportunities revolution.Employment legislation continues to evolve and has adapted over the years to reflect the needs of parental responsibility and care in pregnancy.

If you were searching for the utopia of family friendly working conditions you might look no further than the Nordic model. In Sweden, for example, there is emphasis on gender equality and both parents taking leave. Most European countries, including the UK, offer far more rights to parents than the other top twenty one richest nations.

Unlike a UK mother, who is entitled to 52 weeks of maternity leave, a mum in the USA is entitled to only 12 weeks ‘unpaid’ leave if they work for a firm of over 50 employees and have worked for the company for a minimum of 12 months.

So working parents are much better off here than in the US but perhaps not as well off as in Sweden. However, there’s more to being a family friendly workplace than just the legalities. Any parent who has experienced the stress of a sick child or childminder knows that a ‘family friendly’ workplace depends as much on the attitudes of their colleagues and their employer.

Ni4kids took the debate to our readers to ask them what their own experience is as a working parent.

The overwhelming majority of parents we spoke to were happy with their workplace situation. Rosemary Cunningham responded; “Both my husband and I had to take time off from work during my pregnancy for frequent hospital reviews. Our twins were then born prematurely at 29 weeks and we got caught up in the Pseudomonas episode. I took extended leave of 15 months and then went back to work part-time. Both my husband’s and my employers allow us to work from home on days when childcare is an issue and they have made a very stressful time more bearable through their understanding and consideration”.

Clare Smith from Cancer Focus NI commented; “I am aghast when I read of parents describing how unfriendly their workplace is towards them! Probably because my own workplace is extremely family friendly. Clearly identified in our employee handbook are sections on ‘Parental Leave’ and ‘Time off for Dependants’ and within each are the words “discuss your own particular circumstances with your head of department”. They understand the concept of giving and receiving because I know that if I’m given time off to attend a parents’ teacher meeting, then the next time I am asked to produce a piece of work or cover someone’s job for the day when they are ill, I will be sure to pull out all the stops and do whatever is needed”.

Unfortunately, not everyone has had the same experience. One parent we heard from, Vicky* works in the childcare sector. She told ni4kids; “I am a single mum of two primary school aged children and my employer has increased my hours to 40 per week with no room for negotiation. The irony is shocking. If flexible working arrangements don’t suit the employer they won’t offer it.” Another, Sarah* believes of her employer; “They are terrible to work for as a single parent. They don’t give any allowance for children or parents. They have recently taken hours off me and given them to a male childless colleague”.

Nicola* also agrees her workplace could be much more family friendly. She confesses; “My workplace like to think they are family friendly but not on short notice. Once I was refused time off to take my sick one-year-old to the doctor. My work wanted me to get an afternoon appointment but the only appointment I could get that day was in the morning, so I was refused permission. I was left in floods of tears of frustration at not being able to take my sick child to the doctor”. Ann* is starting back to work soon after the birth of her second child. She says; “I feel that I’m not taken seriously any more, that I can’t be relied upon and that my maternity leave was a huge hassle for the team. Some people seem to think maternity leave is some sort of holiday. If I can’t devote enough time to my children then I’ll have to consider leaving my job”.

Of course if you believe that having children is a lifestyle choice some may be unsympathetic to the woes of working parents and that equality in the workplace means just that - everyone must be treated the same. And what about the struggles of employers trying to keep companies running in a difficult economic climate?

Roseann Kelly, Chief Executive, Women in Business NI, said: “At Women in Business NI time and again we are asked for advice from small and medium sized employers and large corporate organisations on how best to handle issues and challenges surrounding the rights of mothers and fathers in the workplace. In the ideal world, we would suggest that parents are offered working conditions which provide the best opportunity for them to manage their children’s needs with that of their employer. Whilst some employers offer fully flexible working conditions, others simply cannot, due to financial constraints, resourcing issues or due to the nature of the business and its operating hours. And whilst I understand that the employer’s business need is their priority, I always pose them the question as to whether it’s beneficial for the organisation to consider flexible requests on a case by case basis in order to achieve the maximum input to the organisation from fully motivated employees?”

What does the future hold? In GB the long awaited Children and Families Bill makes significant changes to the flexible working eligibility and request regime. The new system will most likely take effect in summer 2014 and is likely to apply to Northern Ireland at the same date. Shared parental leave is likely to come into effect in NI in 2015.

Ni4kids View
It’s great to hear so many employers are indeed family friendly but if there is an issue over flexible working requests or parental leave the best outcome is surely a compromise resolution that gives both parties at least part of what they need. Recruiting and training costs are some of the biggest areas of expense for an organisation. It must be better for all to retain a motivated, happy team member who will go the extra mile when the company is in need in return for a bit of support when they, as a parent, are too.

Read more on current employment legislation from Paul Blease of the Labour Relations Agency NI in our Employment Features Section

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

Your Comments

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