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The best of both worlds

The charity Parents at Work last week hosted its tenth annual Employer of the Year Awards. The number of entries from the construction industry (none) matched exactly the number of construction/civil engineering firms represented in Employers for Work-Life Balance, the Government and private sector partnership launched in March by Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In sectors like retailing and financial services, work-life balance is the 'buzz expression' of the new millennium. Yet the concept remains largely unacknowledged in the construction industry, which is especially odd considering the current skills shortage. All companies are fighting in the same pool when it comes to attracting good employees.

So what is work-life balance?

According to the Industrial Society's National Work-Life Forum, chaired by former head of the Equal Opportunities Commission Joanna Foster, those subscribing to work-life balance 'have committed to helping create a society that supports men and women in their quest for a better balance between the pressures of paid work and having enough time and energy to lead fulfilling and responsible personal, family and community lives'.

Sounds great, but what does it mean for business? The economic case for better work-life balance - 'the case for UK plc' - is compelling, says Foster, 'for business competitiveness and the bottom line'.

It does not take a genius to work out that a happy employee will work more efficiently and effectively than an unhappy one, invariably offering the added bonus of genuine loyalty to his or her employer.

'It's a social issue that's intimately connected to economics and we've identified that competition is now fuelling employers to do something about it, ' adds Foster. 'How we make it happen in the engineering and construction industries, neither of which has been at the leading edge in human resource policies, will be a major issue.'

And it is an issue that needs addressing sooner rather than later. Employers will not keep people otherwise, particularly women employees.

'But it's not just about women, ' Foster insists, 'it's also about care of the elderly, which is hugely important given demographics and young people'.

Graduates are looking for flexibility in the workplace, she adds, and will go to those industries offering it.

'I'm very keen to work with sectors that haven't yet got the message and to help them move things forward, ' she says. And yes, she adds, this does include the construction industry.

This said, there are signs that some construction companies are starting to wake up to the varying needs of their employees, male and female, and - at last - responding to research on working practices and productivity.

Keith Clark, chief executive of Kvaerner (soon to be Skanska) publicly bemoans Britain's culture of long-hours working, defending what most of us deep down know to be true - that those who work all hours are, inevitably, inefficient.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education & Employment's work-life balance unit echoes these sentiments: 'We need to be working smarter, ' she says, 'rather than longer.'

Key points

A happy employee will work more efficiently, improving the bottom line

The skills shortage makes worklife balance particularly pertinent to the construction industry

People need to work smarter rather than longer

Some construction firms are starting to address work-life balance issues

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