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May 18, 2007

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'One of my colleagues has childcare commitments that mean they are often "unavailable" during normal working hours, and so the rest of us are expected to take up the slack. But why should we have to do extra work without even a "by your leave"? And what about other people's voluntary commitments?'

n A spokesman for the University and College Union says: "Work-life balance legislation up to this point has mainly focused on working parents (parents with a child under six or a disabled child under 18). From April 6, the law extended the right to request flexible working to carers of adults.

"Excluding employees without children from work-life policies means that organisations are not realising the full potential of enabling flexible working. But it needs careful implementation to ensure that it does not have a detrimental impact on other colleagues. Most organisations implement work-life balance policies on the basis of there being a 'business case' for someone working a different working pattern - part of which should consider the impact on colleagues. There also need to be regular reviews of how it is working and support for managers who may not be used to managing the different ways of working.

"Work-life balance is not just for people who want to reduce their working hours. It's about responding to individual circumstances to help people fulfil their responsibilities and aspirations. Many people love their work and for them the perfect 'balance' is working very long hours. The ideal 'balance' can also vary at different stages of life. For example, in your twenties you might be quite happy to work long hours in exchange for breaks to go travelling or to pursue a hobby; a few years down the line you may want to reduce your hours or have greater flexibility to fit in extra study or family responsibilities.

"You may wish to approach your employer about considering introducing flexible working patterns for everyone and point out that this will have many potential benefits, not just for employees and relationships between colleagues (which may well become strained under the circumstances you describe) but also for the organisation itself. There is a useful website you could direct your employer to: http:///employersforwork-lifebalance. There is also useful information for both employers and employees on the Working Families website http:///

* A spokesman for the Universities and Colleges Employers Association says:

"There is no automatic right to work flexibly, but employers have a statutory duty to consider any requests they receive seriously, and they need to have a good business reason to refuse the request. Any change is permanent, unless otherwise agreed.

"Your manager has assessed the flexible working request by your colleague and decided that it could be accommodated without any detrimental impact. But it sounds like there has been little communication with you about the arrangement. If you feel that it is having a negative impact on you, you should ask your manager to explain how they envisaged the arrangement working when it was agreed. Your manager may then need to consider whether there are any measures that could be put in place to help you and make the flexible working arrangement more successful."

* A pro vice-chancellor commented: "I dislike people who refuse to see the importance of children, but I dislike even more those who use the existence of a child as an excuse to do as little as possible. The parent/carer needs to talk to colleagues, and the colleagues need to listen and then everyone should negotiate. Failure to do this and suddenly dropping colleagues into trouble is not on, and the head of department should point this out. But when a child is ill, for example, then colleagues may have to step in and help and I don't think this is unreasonable. Those colleagues may fall ill themselves some day and then they'll be glad of all the help they can get."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, Research Councils UK and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to

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