Can you be innovative on a budget? West Dunbartonshire Council certainly think that budget constraints can make for creative solutions.
It has recently been recognised by Working Families for its work on elder care and carers in general, particularly its policy on unpaid leave.
“We look to be innovative within our budget through our policy and procedures,” says Tracy Keenan, an HR Business Partner at the council. “Unlike our private sector colleagues who offer a wide variety of paid leave to parents and carers we have to be more creative.”
For instance, the council cannot afford paid carers’ leave, but what they can do is spread the costs so that carers who want time off still have a wage coming in each month. So if a worker wants six months off their wages will be reduced across the year or a longer period, depending on their circumstances, but they will still get paid regularly. That helps to retain the employee and means they keep their continuous service so they don’t have to take a career break then face the struggle to get back into work afterwards. Also there is no break in their pension contributions. “No other public sector organisation has come up with anything like this before we did. It’s a creative solution and, while we would love to be in a position to pay people for carers’ leave, there’s no cost to us,” says Tracy.
The council also has a carer support network which is employee peer-led and meets monthly. Tracy, a working mum whose father has dementia, has personally benefited from the network’s peer support from others who have been or are going through similar issues.
West Dunbartonshire Council’s carers’ leave scheme and strategy have been in place for over 18 months and, says Tracy, have proved very successful. A variety of organisations have contacted them about their family friendly policies. “Improving employee engagement and wellbeing is critical to retention and attraction,” she says. The new strategy started after the HR team did an analysis of sickness absence and realised many carers were using sick leave to look after family members. They were, however, being managed as if they were off sick. “We realised that was not the appropriate way to support them. We offered flexible working so they could balance their caring role more easily and we researched internally and externally what we could do,” says Tracy.
The council has got a track record of innovative policies. It won another Working Families award for its support for dads two years ago and has been commended for its flexible working and its support for employees on maternity and paternity leave.
Earlier this year for the Year of the Dad the council launched a mini campaign, backed by strong case studies, to promote flexible working to dads, address dads directly and talk about their family role. “We are moving away from an old-fashioned culture for men. We want to show that whatever role you have you can work as flexibly as women,” says Tracy.
She adds that West Dunbartonshire council has recently extended its flexible working by promoting it at the recruitment stage. Job adverts say that the council “is happy to talk flexible” and the council has taken this a step further by encouraging applicants to tell them in their online application what they would like to see in terms of a flexible working pattern. The council will then look to see if they can accommodate that if the person has the right skills for the job.
“No other local authority is doing this,” says Tracy. “Many employers are good at flexible working for their existing employees, but they don’t reach out to people in the wider workforce, such as returners who may not be able to return unless they can get flexible working of some kind. We want to attract the best candidates,” she states. “Returners often have to return to low paid, unskilled work as they can’t get into the profession they left. That is not good for either the women or the country.”
Before they advertise a post managers also have to say on their job advertisement form whether it is suitable for flexible working, including part-time work. That forms goes to the HR team and they will investigate if the manager says the job is not suitable for flexible working. “It’s about gentle conversations,” says Tracy, “and educating managers about the benefits of flexible working.”
If a person is recruited to work a flexible pattern that is set down in their contract so that it is protected. “We believe that a flexible contract is just as valuable as a traditional 9-5 one,” says Tracy.
Other new initiatives include a pilot of two weeks’ paid bereavement leave. “It recognises that some people have a delayed reaction to the death of a close family member and that sickness leave may not be appropriate,” says Tracy. “We want to be proactive and at the forefront of good practice. And we recognise that it brings a lot of benefits in terms of reduced sickness and stress leave and more engaged employees.”