New research we have conducted for the TUC finds Britain’s trade unions play a vital role in securing a work-life balance for employees.
According to the most authoritative workplace survey in Britain, three-quarters of workplace managers agree or strongly agree that “it is up to individual employees to balance work and family responsibilities” (Bryson and Forth, 2017a). The percentage agreeing has risen since the early 2000s (Van Wanrooy et al., 2013), even though more regulations aimed at improving work-life balance – such as a right to request flexible working – have come into force. So it is, perhaps, no wonder that British workers look on in envy at the rights to extended paid leave and other statutory supports to work-life balance enjoyed on the continent, particularly in Scandinavian countries.
Our new research finds that unions improve work-life balance for employees in Britain. They do so in three ways.
Figure 1: Number of Work-Life Balance Practices in Unionised and Non-unionised Workplaces, Whole Economy, 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Survey
First, they increase the number of work-life balance practices employers implement, over and above those they are required to provide under the law (Figure 1). In fact, there are twice as many WLB practices in unionized workplaces compared to non-unionized workplaces (5.7 v 2.9), though this gap falls to 1 WLB practice when comparing “like” workplaces. The differential is greater when union bargaining strength is higher, suggesting unions target WLB as a bargaining objective.
Second, the presence of a union recognised for bargaining significantly reduces the incidence of long-hours working (over 48 hours per week) and employees’ perception of a long-hours culture, as indicated by the belief that one has to work long hours to progress at work.
Third, the presence of a recognised union reduces the likelihood that the employer will agree that it is up to the employee to balance work and family life.
The fifteen practices designed to improve work-life balance are:
- Working at or from home in normal working hours
- Flexi-time (where an employee has no set start or finish time but an agreement to work a set number of hours per week or per month
- Job sharing schemes (sharing a full-time job with another employee)
- The ability to reduce working hours (e.g. switching from full-time to part-time employment)
- Compressed hours (i.e. working standard hours across fewer days)
- Ability to change set working hours (including changing shift pattern)
- Working only during school term times
- Workplace nursery or nursery linked with workplace
- Financial help with child care (e.g. childcare vouchers, loans, repayable contributions to fees for childcare outside the workplace, subsidised places not located at the workplace)
- Financial help with the care of older adults
- A specific period of leave for carers of older adults (in addition to time off for emergencies)
- A specific period of paid parental leave (in addition to maternity or paternity leave, and time off for emergencies)
- Maternity pay above statutory minimum
- Paternity pay above statutory minimum
- Paid emergency care leave
These work-life balance benefits are apparent in the whole economy and in the private sector. They come on top of other, perhaps better-known, benefits that the research identifies in a separate report, including higher pay, better pension benefits, and more off-the-job training. Furthermore, these worker benefits do not appear to come at the expense of workplace performance, since the research finds no difference between the financial performance or labour productivity in union and observationally equivalent non-union workplaces.
Employees in unionized settings appear to experience better WLB and have more family friendly practices available to them compared with similar employees in the non-union sector. This is a success story for trade unions that appears to have attracted little attention, one that is perhaps all the more surprising given the organizational challenges trade unions have been facing in recent years.
 The study is based on the 2004 and 2011 Workplace Employment Relations Surveys, which are linked employer-employee surveys that allow us to extrapolate to the population of all workplaces with 5+ employees in Britain, and their employees (except in agriculture and mining).