Central policies, local discretion: a review of employee access to work-life balance arrangements in a public sector agency.

Author:Colley, Linda
Position:Contributed Article - Report


Work-life balance is one of the leading contemporary issues in the Australian employment environment, driven by both employee demands and employer desire to attract employees in a tight labour market. This article is about the important issue of employee experiences of work-fife balance, and uses a public sector case study to consider progress and identify issues yet to be resolved. The research considers the extent of the work-life balance policy framework in the case study agency, employees' awareness of their work-life balance options, and employee perceptions about access to flexible working arrangements. The research finds that the agency has a solid policy framework and reasonably high levels of awareness. But it identifies a gap between employees' awareness and their perceptions of access, and uncovers many local-level barriers to access to flexible working arrangements. The article concludes that, to ensure employees have access to work-life balance, the agency should shift its focus to implementation of the policy framework through activities such as education and culture change activities.


Work-life balance is one of the leading contemporary issues in the Australian employment environment, as it is in many other countries. There are many drivers for the increasing focus on work-life balance. At one end of the spectrum is employee demand for changing working patterns to match changing household patterns. The traditional model of a male breadwinner supporting a wife and family is no longer the most common household arrangement. At the other end of the spectrum is employer needs in a tight labour market. Many organisations face skills shortages and a pending exit of large portions of the older workforce without an adequate pool of skilled replacement labour (ABS 2009, Australian Parliament 2005). Flexible working arrangements are one means for employers to attract and retain skilled workers (DEEWR 2009, DEIR 2008).

These two divergent drivers might suggest an intersection of the interests of employers and employees, but many employees still have difficulties in accessing flexible working arrangements. Decentralisation of industrial relations and deregulation of the labour market means that work-life balance conditions are often set in local agreements, and this leads to work-life balance provisions being available in some workplaces rather than across the community. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has attempted to remedy this with 'work and family' and 'reasonable working hours' test cases in industrial tribunals, designed to extend certain work-life balance provisions to the broader workforce (ACTU 2005, 2009). Employers that have introduced work-life balance policies may still have cultures that see the ideal worker as one who is care-less and can work each day of the week, or have unfriendly practices such as long hours, work intensification and job insecurity. Part-time work remains on the periphery and often means disengagement from the regular labour market and career prospects (Pocock 2003).

The Rudd Government made partial progress to resolving these issues in the new Fair Work Act 2009. On the positive side, the Act aims to extend work-life balance access to all workers. Its national employment standards apply to all employees covered by the Act and include the light to request flexible working arrangements and standards against excessive working hours. On the negative side, these are illusory rights in the absence of any enforcement or dispute resolution powers, unless both parties have expressed consent for such intervention in a collective agreement. Stakeholders attempted to remedy this during the introduction of the legislation. Unions and others raised enforcement powers in their submissions to the Senate. The Australian Greens tabled amendments to provide protection for people to negotiate suitable working arrangements without putting their jobs at risk (Brown 2009; Siewert 2009). But the Rudd Government was not persuaded. Lack of enforcement or dispute resolution also occurs in state jurisdictions. This leaves many potential barriers to employees gaining access to work-life balance arrangements.

This article, to complement the theoretical and policy contributions in this special edition, deals with the important issue of employee experiences of work-life balance,. The research focuses on a case study of a public sector agency, and raises three primary questions to review progress and identify the issues yet to be resolved. To what extent does the case study agency provide a framework of work-life balance policies? Are employees aware of the options available under this framework? What is the experience of employees in accessing these arrangements? The research finds that the Queensland public sector (QPS) has a strong framework for work-life balance policies, which was expanded in recent years as part of a deliberate strategy to compete as an employer of choice in a tight labour market. The framework has shifted from work and family to work-life balance, as the QPS extended the target audience beyond working mothers to include retention of all employees. The research also finds reasonably high levels of employee awareness of most parts of the policy framework and confirms that work-life balance policies are important to the agency workforce. The findings indicate, however, low employee perceptions of access to many of these policies, as well as inequities in access due to fluctuating manager discretion across the agency. The agency has opportunities to undertake education and culture change to ensure that employees feel comfortable about requesting access to flexible working arrangements. The research makes an important contribution to understanding the employee experience, highlighting the fact that the existence of policies is different from the implementation of policies. Further research is required to understand whether there is genuine manager resistance or failure to implement the policies or just longstanding employee perceptions of traditionally inflexible human resource policies.


The research explores questions about work-life balance in a particular QPS agency referred to as the 'case study agency'. To meet the confidentiality obligations agreed with the agency, only limited details of its organisational characteristics are provided in this article,. The agency is medium-sized (between 1,500 and 2,500 employees). It has a predominantly white-collar professional workforce and the majority of employees are office-based. More than 60 per cent are aged between 25 and 44 years and thus are in the age range most likely to entail young families or caring responsibilities. This agency profile supports a few broad assumptions. The professional and self-directed nature of the workforce is likely to lead to a higher-trust employment relationship. The largely office-based nature of the work may make it easier to provide employees with access to work-life balance policies than in other public sector environments such as hospitals, schools or emergency services. These circumstances seem conducive to offering work-life balance flexibilites.

The research focuses on questions of policy availability, employee awareness of the policies and employee perceptions of access to the policies. We divide work-life balance options into three distinct areas--parental leave policies, other leave policies and flexible working arrangements.

First, the research considers the question of the availability of work-life balance policies across the QPS. More specifically, it asks whether the case study agency provides any policies or strategies in excess of these central minimum standards. It explores the central human resource policy framework through a review of documentary sources, including central personnel agency websites and annual reports, industrial instruments and union documents.

We then explore questions about employees' awareness of work-life balance policies and their perceptions of access to these policies within the agency.

This information is drawn from qualitative and quantitative sources. Demographic and employment trends are drawn from the case study agency's general workforce dataset. More specific information is drawn from employee surveys conducted in the agency in July 2008 as part of broader workforce planning activities. The purpose of the surveys was to gather information about employee intentions to stay with or leave the organisation, and to use this information to inform human resource strategies to attract and retain staff. The topics for the four surveys were informed by both the contemporary literature and particular issues/risks identified from the agency's workforce data. The surveys were administered on-line and designed to be completed in less than ten minutes. They required selection of a pre-set answer to each question, such as yes/no or a likert scale of agree/disagree, and provided scope for additional qualitative responses. The electronic link to each survey was emailed to the relevant cohort, and only one response could be sent from any computer. The survey period spanned more than 2 weeks.

The topics for the surveys included intent to stay and work-life balance, retirement intentions and experiences of new recruits who joined the organisation within the past 12 months. Findings from the first three surveys are used in this article. The primary surveys focused on intent to stay and work-life balance and included questions on employee awareness of work-life balance policies and perceptions of access to those policies. All employees in the agency were invited to participate in these surveys, with an initial email invitation from the agency chief executive and a subsequent email from human resources containing the electronic survey link. Most divisions in the agency also communicated with their own employees to...

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