Work and family – two sides of the same coin
The relationship between work and private life often appears controversial, even though both are a part of life. When different sectors of life are combined, even minor flexibility in working times and other arrangements clearly improves the overall situation. Taking the employees’ needs into consideration brings concrete benefits to the entire enterprise.
Hardly any enterprise has been founded namely for the purpose of combining work and family life. However, this can be said to be true of Maustaja Co. in Pohjois-Pohjanmaa, which started operations in 1972 under the name Pyhännän Einestuote Oy (Pyhäntä’s food product co. ltd). The company was founded by the municipality of Pyhäntä because it wanted to offer jobs to the wives of the house builders at Pyhäntä. At the time, the local sawmill and house factory were attracting workers and their families to the region.
The breakthrough of the food company happened with the preparation of ketchup in 1974, and in a few years the company had become Finland’s leading ketchup producer. After several changes in ownership, the company was renamed Maustaja (spicer) in 1989. Today the enterprise manufactures 400 different liquid food products as a subcontractor for the food trade. The biggest product groups are ketchups, mustards, salad dressings, jams and marmalades. Their brands are familiar to most Finns.
On a typical work day in October, these popular products are moving along the factory’s conveyor line. The bottling machine is filling plastic ketchup bottles, a second line makes mustard (Turun sinappi), the production of which is back in Finland again, packets of salad dressing come out of a third production line, and a fourth line produces sugar frosting for cakes. Managing director Arto Tölli says that the factory operates on three shifts five days a week.
– The workers must be present from the beginning to the end of their shift to control the production process, so unfortunately flexi-work is not possible for the 50 shift workers. We have about twenty office workers, and the nature of their work allows more possibilities, Tölli describes the effects of the different work tasks.
Shift arrangements bring flexibility
– Arranging work shifts to suit individuals is the best means of balancing work, family and leisure time for our shift workers, and we make a lot of these arrangements. This requires readiness and resourcefulness from the supervisors, because shift arrangements can sometimes be complicated, the managing director continues.
As an example, Tölli tells about a couple who worked in the factory 20 years ago. When their children were small, the parents wanted to work in different shifts, so that one of them could always be at home. Now that their children have grown up, the couple work on the same shift. Tölli says that many people who live in Pyhäntä do shift work. This means that at Maustaja also the family members’ other jobs and their changes are taken into consideration whenever possible.
When an employee returns to work after a long family leave, it is possible for him or her to work only day shifts for a year, for example. This helps in organizing day care for the children.
– Balancing work and family life is mainly a question of attitude. If there is a will there is a way for this kind of balance, says Tölli.
– If a worker comes to express his wish to go on paternal leave, what kind of response does he get? Is he asked whether it’s absolutely necessary, or is the employer excited about his new phase in life? Attitudes become concrete in everyday life.
Tölli emphasizes that people’s different life situations must be taken into account. The parents of small children aren’t the only ones whose work and private life have to be combined. Someone’s elderly parent may need continuous care and help – also single persons need time and possibilities for themselves. Tölli himself has experience of what it means to take care of a sick old family member.
A joint project of the work community
According to the managing director, strong family values benefit the company. Work is important for everybody, but Tölli feels that life shouldn’t be all about work. The family, hobbies and leisure time are important balancing and empowering factors.
– We look at the family, leisure time and work, not as separate entities, but as important building blocks of an individual’s life, Tölli says.
The managing director believes that combining work, family and leisure time supports the employees’ well-being at work. In 2012–2013 Maustaja Co. took part in a management project of the Centre for Occupational Safety. In addition to designing a management system, also well-functioning daily routines were planned in the project.
– We learned that well-being at work, and combining work and family as a part of it, is not the task of just one person – it has to be a joint project, says Tölli.
According to him, the employer creates the preconditions, but each employee participates in combining his or her own work and home life. Everyone is responsible for the general well-being of their workmate. According to the managing director, employers should understand that taking the workers’ families into account benefits the company financially.
– The balancing of work, family and leisure time seems like a soft value, but at the same time it is also a hard economic value. When employees feel well and the employer takes care of combining work and home life as much as possible, the result is seen directly in the company’s returns. So it is a profitable investment, he explains.
“A family-friendly attitude as well as the supervisors’ own examples and choices are important. The best promoter of family friendliness is a supervisor who leaves on time to fetch his or her child from day care, or encourages his subordinate to take a family leave.”
The important role of supervisors
Anna Kokko, manager of development projects, and Minna Salmi, research manager from the National Institute of Health and Welfare (THL), are specialists in balancing work and family life, and they agree with Arto Tölli. The relationship between work and private life is too often seen as a conflict, although it needn’t be.
– The attitude may be right, but there is not enough knowledge at all workplaces about how to balance the two, or how to apply the available means to combine them, says Anna Kokko.
Unlike at Maustaja Co., not all workplaces realize that family-friendly solutions actually do benefit the work community and the enterprise. Even though creating a family-friendly spirit is the responsibility of the whole workplace, the role of supervisors is decisive.
– A family-friendly attitude as well as the supervisors’ own examples and choices are important. The best promoter of family friendliness is a supervisor who leaves on time to fetch his or her child from day care, or encourages his subordinate to take a family leave, Kokko points out.
Minna Salmi from the National Institute of Health and Welfare (THL) believes that everybody’s right to municipal child care and the possibility to go on an income-related family leave provide a good basis for balancing work and family life. These basic social benefits are not enough, however, because supportive practices at workplaces are needed before the overall system can function well. In Finland, women and mothers have a long tradition of working outside the home, and this should help in finding solutions.
Flexible working hours – a central tool
According to Anna Kokko, development work is perhaps avoided at workplaces because the changes are believed to be big and massive. But even small changes can be very useful. The follow-up of the effects of changes also needs to be improved, so that the work community will know whether the solutions carried out actually are beneficial.
– Small changes can be, for instance, having meetings during the compulsory working hours, and allowing the employees to be in contact with family members during working, Koko mentions a couple of examples.
– Bigger arrangements are, among others, the timing of vacations so that the needs of families with school children are taken into consideration, but at the same time taking into account in a fair way the wishes of other employees as well.
Flexible working times are the major single means of combining work and family life. Even a little bit of flexibility is perceived to help daily life and improve well-being. Flexible working time should be understood broadly: it can be flexi-time, in other words flexibility in the times of starting work and leaving work, shortened daily or weekly working hours, mobile work, work time arrangements that allow taking care of a sick child or close family member, and so on.
The type of work naturally affects the possibilities for flexible working time arrangements. In industrial production and in service occupations the work is generally tied to a fixed time and place, but less often in information work and specialist work.
Many people take care of their incapacitated family members at home
The discussion about balancing work, family and leisure time often revolves around families with children. The number of families with children is great, so questions related to them are indisputably important. Specialists nevertheless emphasize the significance of taking impartially into consideration various pivotal stages in people’s lives and family circumstances.
The same applies to families as to flexible arrangements: the concept of family must be understood broadly. In addition to traditional families with children, there are many other kinds of families, separated parents sharing child care, as well as families where the spouse or elderly parent needs special help and care. The death of a close family member is certainly reflected in the work life of the whole family.
The impact of taking care of one’s own incapacitated parents on work has increased continuously. According to the report, “Work and health in Finland, 2012”, carried out by the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, more than one out of four employed persons look after a close relative who needs extra help.
An on-going research at the University of Helsinki is investigating how practical arrangements at the workplace can help to combine working and caring for a close relative or family member. The study also charts various possibilities of supporting the care-givers’ coping at work during different stages of the work career. The project will continue to the end of August 2015.
The classical picture of a care-giver is a woman who is looking after her own elderly parent. Project leader Mia Silfver-Kuhalampi, PhD, says that also men, who are usually care-givers of their spouse, have been interviewed for the research project. Silfver-Kuhalampi does not know what proportion of the care-givers are men, however.
– The preliminary finding is that care-givers who work outside the home usually have numerous flexible possibilities at their disposal. These are, for example, working time bank, shortened working hours, telework, and special leaves where an unemployed person is hired for a fixed-term during the regular employee’s leave-of-absence, Silfver-Kuhalampi explains.
– The care-givers are mostly satisfied with the attitude and behaviour of their employers. But many have negative experiences of the health care system, which has caused stress. Many say that obtaining care or services for their family member has been a real struggle.
When Finns are asked about important things in life, the family is usually at the top of the list, but work nevertheless controls the rhythm of everyday life.
Passion for work – both good and bad
In Finland, work has traditionally surpassed other spheres of life, and the family and leisure time have been adapted to the demands of work. When Finns are asked about important things in life, the family is usually at the top of the list, but work nevertheless controls the rhythm of everyday life.
– People like to work and want to do their job well, whatever their work is. Passion for one’s work is a positive thing, but when it comes to balancing work and family life it can turn into a conflict of interests, says Minna Salmi.
– Flexible arrangements may mean that work begins to consume more time, and people start to work overtime at home. Typically, information work is often done at home mainly because the employee wants to do the work as well as possible and therefore spends his or her own time doing it. Overtime work leads to a lot of negative tension between work and family life.
Salmi refers to a study which shows that 40% of parents feel that they neglect their home responsibilities at the expense of work. The same percentage are concerned about their capacity to cope as a parent. The lack of time is perceived to be a chronic problem among employees with small children. Especially mothers reported that working overtime greatly increases their feeling of neglecting matters at home, and they worry about having less energy to handle domestic routines.
Salmi believes that the two-faced nature of flexible work has not received enough attention. At its worst, flexi-work may mean flexibility only for the benefit of work. Smart phones, portable computers and e-mail make the line between work and leisure time fuzzy, and as a result leisure time comes second.
– Developing solutions that support the combining of work and family life demands long-term persistent efforts, and a person with passion is often needed at the workplace to promote these solutions, says Salmi.
–It is important to realize that creating new action models that help to balance work and private life does not offer privileges for only a few employee groups, such as the parents of small children. Flexibility is needed in various phases of life, and every employee may at some stage need flexible work arrangements, even though they may seem distant at the moment.
Employment contract affects starting a family
There may be fewer passionate persons at workplaces now because the recession has affected Finnish work life. When there are fewer jobs available, many employees may refrain from criticizing the negative practices at their present workplace. Few people want to be labelled as a trouble-maker at work, if finding a new job is difficult. Unemployed people have no work, whereas those who still have a job may have too much to do in enterprises that have had to downsize their staff.
Fixed-term jobs are more common in Finland than in other EU countries on average. Especially women have fixed-term jobs, and over a half of women’s new work contracts have been temporary for a long time already. According to Minna Salmi and Anna Kokko, this lowers the desire of young people to start a family. Uncertainty about future work prospects and regular income postpones having children, and this may affect the overall number of children in the family. For many, the hope of having for example three children, remains just a dream because their work is insecure.
– Women who are in the age range of starting a family have fixed-term jobs much more often than elsewhere in Europe. The problems of fixed-term work should be taken very seriously, says Minna Salmi.
– Precarious work affects how the parents share child care between them. The father may want to stay at home with the children, but it may be impossible or economically unwise because of the nature of the parents’ work contracts.
Researcher Johanna Närvi from the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) studied precarious work contracts in her doctoral thesis. She found that the more unstable work careers of mothers, compared to those of fathers, tend to increase the gender-based division of work in families with children. When the mother leaves fixed-term work to take care of her baby, she has no job to which to return. It is therefore difficult to plan the length of the family leave or the time of returning to work. The father’s responsibility as sole supporter of the family increases, which means that he must have a steady job.
The times have changed also in the sense that taking into consideration the employee’s family and leisure time is nowadays a competitive advantage of employers. When there is competition for suitable employees, combining work and private life may be a decisive factor for the enterprise.
Combining work and family life – a recruitment advantage
The times have changed also in the sense that taking into consideration the employee’s family and leisure time is nowadays a competitive advantage of employers. When there is competition for suitable employees, combining work and private life may be a decisive factor for the enterprise. Balancing the different sectors of life also improves well-being, increases productivity and lessens absenteeism.
– The younger the employees are, the more important it is for them that they have a family as well as a job. In future, combining work and family life successfully will be an even bigger competitive advantage for enterprises when they recruit workers, Minna Salmi sums up.
Furthermore, combining work, family and leisure time also has an impact on the lengthening of work careers, which has received a lot of attention recently. When the different areas of life are in balance, people are willing and able to continue working.