The focus of much of the recent research output has been on the business case for family-friendly work arrangements. This is particularly relevant in a time of employment growth and skills shortages. However, certain publications particularly those produced at EU level emphasise the relationship between family-friendly work arrangements and equality of opportunity to avail of such arrangements, traditional gender roles will be reinforced.
GAPS IN THE RESEARCH
While the research in the area of family-friendly work arrangements and work-life balance is increasing rapidly, both in range and in volume, there is scope for a much more comprehensive treatment of the issue, particularly in the Irish context. Areas where additional research is needed include:
OverviewThe current body of research relating to the Irish economy focuses on specific aspects of the family-friendly work arrangements issue, for example, childcare and family-friendly initiatives in the small to medium enterprise sector. However, there is a lack of research which draws together the separate elements of the issue and presents a clear overview of the rationale for, scope and implementation of family-friendly work arrangements in modern Ireland.
There is a limited amount of published material which provides employer organisations with information and advice on the practical aspects of implementing and managing family-friendly and work-life balance arrangements in their enterprises. The need now is for research into and dissemination of guidelines on how employers can identify the feasibility of such arrangements, how they can select the most effective initiatives to implement and how they can introduce the best methods of monitoring and evaluating the operation of the arrangements.
While the limited research available indicates that, in general, employers have found that family-friendly work arrangements produce business benefits, there is comparatively little research into the specific gains obtained. Recent research in the UK has provided some case studies supporting the case for the arrangements but there is a lack of similar material in Ireland.
Employers, employees and trade unions who are unconvinced about the benefits of family-friendly work arrangements should be provided with examples of the specific benefits, including their business benefits. In addition, there is a case for providing information on the reservations, downsides and resistance factors to family-friendly work arrangements to enable employers to weigh the pros and cons of the issue in a more considered manner.
Long hours culture
There is currently a lack of research in Ireland into the issue of what is sometimes called the 'long hours culture'. This is particularly relevant in the context of a booming economy. Research into the link between the number of hours being worked by employees and the problems of negative stress would be useful.
Much of the research has up to now treated family-friendly work arrangements in general terms and has failed to differentiate between the benefits of some of these arrangements rather than others. This points to the need for research into the suitability and benefits of some family-friendly work arrangements rather than others in specific cases (for example, production line situations). There is also scope for research into the needs of specific employee groups such as lone parents, people with disabilities and people from different ethnic minority backgrounds.
There is a lack of research into how the roles of men and women are changing and how the changes can and should be accommodated within both the workplace and wider society. There is a particular lack of research into how men and women divide and share their domestic and caring responsibilities and the extent to which the provision of family-friendly work arrangements either changes or reinforces traditional gender roles and divisions.
In view of growing labour mobility in the EU and in the proposed enlargement of membership, there is a need for further research to facilitate comparisons between statutory and non-statutory workplace arrangements across member states.
Another significant trend in the research, particularly at EU level, is the emphasis on the need to support employees with caring responsibilities. This is the result of demographic and social changes which are affecting the nature of the family unit and the lifestyles of men and women. The indications are that parents have fewer children, that there are a growing number of older people and that more women work outside the home. These factors are combining to draw the focus of the research onto the issue of assisting employees to reconcile their work and family life, with specific emphasis on the situation of those employees with childcare and elder-care responsibilities.
There are, however, signs that the research is widening to a consideration of the workplace arrangements needed by all employees, and not just those with caring responsibilities, to balance their work with other aspects of their life. This is particularly apparent in the US and the UK. Work-Life policies and initiatives are now being seen as an element of the overall benefits package which can be offered by progressive employers to all their employees to assist them in being productive and balanced and thus avoid excessive stress.
New ways of Working
Another trend in the research is a move towards and examination of new forms and ways of working. This is being driven by the growing emphasis placed by employers on the need for workplace flexibility to respond rapidly to changes in the marketplace and customer expectations. Flexibility in terms of hours and methods of work require a new approach to employment practices and the research in this area is directed to examining ways in which both employers and employees can embrace the necessary changes. Much research is also being devoted to the use of new technology to support e-commerce and e-Working.
Trends In Research
The most significant trend in the existing research on family-friendly work arrangements/work-life balance is that it is increasing both in quantity and in geographical coverage. The total amount of literature available, in book form, in magazines and specialist publications and on the internet, is growing rapidly. Of particular interest in this regard is the substantial increase in the number of websites and the volume of newspaper and magazine articles concerned with the issue.
The reasons for the impetus are varied. They include the evolution of a post-industrial society, marked by increasing globalisation, the rapid developments in information and communications technologies and enhanced social expectations. These are impacting on workplace practices and fuelling the demand for new forms of work organisation which enable employees to balance their work with their personal responsibilities or general lifestyle outside the workplace.
Predictably, the bulk of the research is being conducted in the developed countries, particularly the US and the UK, but it is also being produced increasingly in Australia, Denmark, in the Scandinavian countries and in Ireland itself.
However, there appears to be a mismatch between the apparent level of interest in the issue and the availability of relevant research as distinct from newspaper and magazine articles and internet material concerned with specific aspects of it.