The Business Case for Work/Life Strategies

The Business Case for Work/Life Strategies
Speech at the Work Life Association Conference
Melbourne, 6 August 2003

Katie Lahey, Chief Executive
Business Council of Australia

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today on this increasingly important issue.

Some of you may wonder why the Business Council of Australia has policies related to work-life balance on its agenda. And many of you may have been surprised by the fact that earlier this year the BCA, together with the ACTU, released a paper on the workforce participation of older Australians.

To explain the BCA’s interest in these issues, let me begin by outlining a few realities facing business and the broader community.

As a result of declining birth rates Australia’s population growth is slowing. Declining birth rates coupled with increasing longevity also mean that Australia’s population is ageing.

Within 10 years Australians aged over 65 will account for 14 per cent of our total population.

At present, Australia’s working age population is growing by around 170,000 per year. By the 2020s our working age population is expected to increase by just 125,000 for the entire decade – not 125,000 per year but over ten years.

The impact of these trends is being compounded by the relatively low labour force participation rates among older workers and early exit of baby boomers from the workforce.

So business is going to find it increasingly difficult to meet their labour needs.

The other reality we have faced over the past two decades is that birth rates have continued to decline at the same time as more women have entered paid employment.

The factors driving these trends are complex and I do not want to over-simplify them. But, there is evidence to suggest that parents are finding it harder to balance work, financial and family obligations, and that women are having fewer children than they would like.

To me this suggests that our birth rates will continue to decline with many women choosing work over family. This will make it difficult to sustain population growth in Australia.

Or the alternative scenario, parents choosing family over work and participation by parents in the workforce drops off.

Neither of these outcomes is positive from the BCA’s perspective. We believe Australia must sustain population growth. And, we must encourage and support participation in the workforce by all Australians – particularly against the backdrop of population ageing.

One final reason for business to be thinking about work-life strategies relates to the benefits of workforce diversity.

There is no denying that businesses are operating in an increasingly complex and competitive environment.

Against this backdrop, it is unlikely that a homogenous workforce will provide the breadth and depth of skills and experiences to enable a business to deal effectively with complex and rapidly changing problems and challenges.

Diversity of skills and experiences in a workforce can provide competitive advantages and increase confidence in the ability of an organisation to respond to, and manage risks, in complex environments and markets.

To sum up.

Business faces the ongoing challenge of attracting workers at a time when there are many factors that are going to be working against labour force participation.

The clear message is that to ensure the pool of available workers is as large as it can be, businesses need to adopt policies that provide greater flexibility and enable their employees to better balance work, families and their other aspirations.

The situation of older workers highlights this.

Many older workers are keen to continue working, but would like greater flexibility to pursue other interests in life.

Or they are at a stage in their lives where they want a bit less responsibility.

Or they are being discriminated against based on negative and inaccurate stereotypes.

Tackling these negative stereotypes and creating opportunities for ongoing participation through more flexible working hours, changed job roles and the like can provide avenues for older workers to stay at work.

Businesses in turn benefit through the retention of skills and experience.

These strategies and outcomes are win-win for workers, business and the wider economy.

Business is getting the message in terms of the importance of supporting the ongoing participation of older workers.

The BCA will release, later this month, a guide for business to better support the participation of older workers.

The degree of interest and involvement among our Members in producing this guide has been very strong and demonstrates the growing importance of this issue to them.

And our Members are making progress through the establishment of their own policies and strategies.

Westpac has made a conscious decision to recruit older workers in an effort to ensure their workforce better matches their clients. McDonald’s is doing the same.

Business is also getting the message in regard to work-family practices.

The BCA is in the process of conducting a survey of work-family policies among its Member companies.

While the final results of this survey are not yet available, it is clear that our Members are adopting strategies aimed at better supporting working parents.

These policies and strategies include paid maternity and paternity leave, job-share schemes, work from home opportunities, assistance with childcare, and family support services, to name a few.

For those of you interested, the final survey results will be presented in the BCA’s Annual Review, which will be published in early October.

I think it will show a very positive story.

The point that I hope I have made today is that there is a strong business case for businesses to adopt and support policies aimed at enhancing work-life balance.

However, it also needs to be recognised that there is no single policy or approach that will suit all businesses or indeed all individuals. There must be flexibility in strategies and expectations.

We must also be realistic about how quickly change can be effected.

In many cases what is required before we see true progress is widespread attitudinal and cultural change – within and across organisations, by employers and employees.

It is only when this has taken place that real progress will be made in terms of outcomes. The experiences around equal opportunity for women in the workforce are a obvious reminder of how long cultural change can take.

All of us have a role to play in driving discussion and debate around these issues and hence in driving this cultural change.

Can I conclude by saying that this is a shared responsibility. Individuals need to work with their employers to develop strategies that meet the needs of all concerned.

In addition, just as employers who provide sound work-life strategies will find it easier to attract workers, those workers who maintain their skills and relevance to employers will also find that more effort will be made to accommodate them.

That is the stark reality – but it is also the reality that will see sustained progress.

Thank you again for the opportunity to speak to you today.

END