Work life future

Next month celebrates 10 years of its Top Employer Awards. Here HR expert Anna Meller, author of #Upcycle Your Job: The smart way to balance family life and career, gives her views on how far we have come in the last 10 years and how far we have yet to go.

Life-work balance at home


Next month celebrates 10 years of its Top Employer Awards. The Awards highlight best practice in family friendly working and are an opportunity to look back on how far we have come and how far there is yet to go. HR expert Anna Meller, author of #Upcycle Your Job: The smart way to balance family life and career, gives her views.

Given the rapid pace of change we’ve experienced over the past ten years it feels a little precarious to make predictions about the future. Basing such predictions on trends can increase their accuracy; and in the context of work I’ve seen three that are noteworthy. In this article I’ll consider each in turn before offering my views on what’s likely to happen next.

1. Working fathers – shifting expectations

Legal access to Paternity Leave in the UK has existed since 2003, but the meagre two weeks at statutory pay resulted in low take-up. The game changer here was the introduction of Shared Parental Leave (SPL) in 2015, allowing both parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave.

It coincided with a growing trend among younger fathers to be more involved in parenting. A generation of men had grown up wanting to do things differently.

In the last year both the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Business in the Community have focussed on providing guidance to employers on how to engage new fathers and encourage them to make use of their leave entitlements.

At the same time a growing number of ‘daddyblogs’ are doing a great job in supporting men to navigate changing family roles.

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2. Women Returners – back to the future

At the start of this decade a colleague of mine talked with excitement about the new concept of Returner Programmes taking hold of Corporate America. A short time later these programmes had crossed the Atlantic; and since arriving in the UK Returner Programmes have grown exponentially.

Enlightened employers were quick to spot the potential for luring skilled women back into the workplace – increasing the hiring pool and supporting other initiatives for gender balance.

I understand that demand for places from women far outstrips supply. As skills shortages increase Returner Programmes continue to be a rich source of talent.

Having focussed on work life balance issues for over 25 years the irony for me here is that such schemes are a second generation of the ‘career breaks’ employers used to offer to retain skilled women, but which fell foul of the myth that
several years out of the workplace made skills redundant.

3. The #AlwaysOn Culture

The growing trend for #AlwaysOn working has been identified by a number of researchers, including Dr Christine Grant at Coventry University. It’s an unintended consequence of improvements in mobile technology that enabled work to be done any time anywhere.

As we’ve found it harder and harder to disconnect, the working day has expanded to embrace the commute and late evening shifts at home. Dr Grant’s research suggests this poses particular health risks to mothers who often end up doing a triple shift of work, childcare and more work.

So, looking forward to the next ten years what’s likely to happen?

  1. The role of working fathers will continue to transform. After years of debate about how to engage men in the issue of supporting women at work it seems this is a key way in. Mothers have always struggled with a ‘parenthood penalty’ and currently it seems fathers wanting flexibility are experiencing the same. Meanwhile, SPL sends a powerful signal that women should no longer be considered the default primary carer of children. As employers begin to realise the impact on both sexes, the hope is that workplace cultures will adapt and prejudices will be dropped.
  2. I’m hoping that Returner programmes will once again morph into ‘career break’ options, enabling both parents more flexibility to take time out of the workplace to be with children. Employers will benefit from retaining skills while jobs will need to be restructured to better support work life balance. Some people will still opt to drop out of work to address caring needs, but this will be by choice and not because they see no alternative.
  3. To safeguard employee wellbeing, employers will need to step in and manage #AlwaysOn working practices. Recent research by Professors Almuth McDowall and Gail Kinman showed half of workplaces having no policy or guidance for employees on how to switch off. As we saw earlier, mothers in particular are likely to fall foul of their own desire to make flexibility work. Thirty years of research has shown that switching off – even for short periods – is essential for our wellbeing.

The next ten years are likely to see even more rapid change than the previous decade. The advent of fully usable AI technology will increasingly impact jobs, while the trends discussed above will shape the way we work.

Let’s use the next decade to develop balanced working practices that benefit everyone.

*The kindle version of Anna’s book costs just 0.99p until Tuesday evening and can be downloaded here –

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