Employer support for staff outside of work

Where possible, progressive employers make it their business to support staff obligations outside of work, says Victoria Furness

Case Studies: Fujitsu Services, Lane4

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For two sectors in particular, 2005 was an historic year. The charity and voluntary sector saw unprecedented levels of campaigning – in what was nominated the ‘Year of the volunteer’ – in support of causes such as the Boxing Day tsunami, the Make Poverty History campaign and the Live8 concert.

Fitting in with this volunteer culture are burgeoning employee demands on employers to take account of their life outside of work. Emma Kirk, psychologist at occupational psychology practice, Pearn Kandola, points out: "Research we published a couple of years ago on graduates, showed that work-life balance was one of the key criteria above salary that they were looking for."

Certainly, forward-looking organisations are taking a closer look at what they can do to deepen their employee relationships. There are some public duties where organisations are legally compelled to give employees extra time off to fulfil tasks and civic roles, such as being a Justice of the Peace, a member of a local authority, or a school governor. Employers are not obliged to pay employees for this period of additional leave, but an IRS Employment Trends survey, published in the IRS Employment Review, found more than a third of the 103 employers interviewed, paid staff who are absent on special leave.

One of the activities employers do not legally have to give additional leave for is the Territorial Army (TA). Tim Corry, campaign director for MoD organisation, Sabre (Support for Britain’s Reservists and Employers) says: "Reservists normally have a training liability of 30 days a year, most of which is taken at weekends or in the evenings." This also includes a two-week camp, which some staff take as annual or unpaid leave, assuming their employer grants permission.

Financial services provider, HBOS, goes one step further. TA members can take up to ten working days a year as special leave, and HBOS will make up the difference in their salary if the TA salary is less than their normal take-home pay. If a reservist is called into full-time action, however, they could be absent from the workplace for up to 12 months. Sabre claims that in most circumstances, reservists are asked to volunteer for mobilised service and must first discuss this with their employer, which is under no obligation to give consent. Employers do not have to pay a reservist if he or she volunteers for mobilisation and the MoD will pay the employer’s pension scheme contributions during the reservist’s absence.

"All we would ask of employers is that they allow time off for reservists as everything else is covered. I have never heard of a reservist receiving extra healthcare benefits and we would not expect this of an employer," says Corry.

Another extra-curricular activity to make newspaper headlines last year, thanks to London’s successful bid to host the 2012 Olympics, was sport. Some employers have already demonstrated their support for wannabe Olympic champions in their workforce. DIY retailer, B&Q, has created Team B&Q, a squad of professional and aspiring athletes who wish to compete in the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Turin 2006 and Beijing 2008. It provides budding athletes the benefits and support of a full-time job, with the flexibility of fitting in training and competitions around their working week.

Dawn Airton, performance lifestyle adviser for the English Institute of Sport, admits it can be tricky for athletes to combine work and sport. "The main provision from employers is unpaid leave at the moment, which some athletes do struggle with. After all, it is not a holiday being at a major competition and they also need some time out." Most athletes receive health insurance through their national governing body, rather than their employer.

Whatever the extra-curricular activity, Charles Cotton, adviser for reward at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), believes: "Benefits tend to come in the form of additional leave." Generous employers also pay for this time away from the office. Accountancy firm, KPMG, for example, grants every employee half a day of paid leave each month for charity work.

Flexible working is another popular benefit offered by employers to accommodate an employee’s extra-curricular activities. Volunteering for a successful business, a study published by the Roffey Park Institute in January, found that most organisations would seriously consider applications for flexible working in such circumstances. KPMG has a policy whereby any employee can apply for flexible working. Sarah Bond, head of diversity at KPMG, adds: "We do not ask what an employee wants it for." 97% of applications have been approved in the last two years. "We have one woman who works three days a week for us and spends the other two days playing international rugby."

General Motors also takes the flexible working approach in supporting the extra-curricular demands of its employee base, which includes members of the TA and one magistrate. "As a modern and flexible employer, we would talk to any employee about what they might want to do and see how we can help," says a spokesperson for the car manufacturer.

But does supporting staff in extra-curricular activities give firms a real business advantage? "It is an attractive tool for recruitment and retention," declares KPMG’s Bond. David Wreford, principal at Mercer , concurs: "It is also about promoting those values you want to establish as an employer, such as being supportive and caring." Other business benefits that the Roffey Park study identified, include: staff motivation, enhanced corporate reputation and personal development opportunities for staff. A study called The potential impact of reserve forces training and experience on business and organisation leadership by academics at Liverpool John Moores University, Bradford University and Leeds Metropolitan University, also identified a strong match between the skills developed by reservists and those areas where organisations had weaknesses – namely, in management and leadership.

Despite these favourable findings, many employers have not formalised their HR process for handling special leave requests. Yet having a written policy, and communicating this clearly to staff, can stop resentment breeding among the rest of the workforce. "It is always an issue that can arise, in the same way that some employees will be disgruntled with people taking time off for family commitments," says Cotton.

Organisations should respond with a proactive approach. Employees who have been away on special leave may be invited to give a talk or presentation on their outside activities or to lead a skill-sharing exercise based on their experience.

Case Study: Fujitsu Services

Fujitsu offers flexibility within its benefits package and its working arrangements to support employees’ outside interests.

Duncan Short, HR director for the central government business unit within design-build technology firm Fujitsu Services, believes there is a trend among younger sections of the workforce in favour of a more flexible approach to work. "We feel we have a responsibility where individuals have roles important in society."

There are also some more subtle benefits offered by Fujitsu, such as the use of its intranet to create a Territorial Army community for members within its employee base, as well as some paid leave activities, such as reading in schools. "By allowing [staff] to pursue these activities, we show that we respect people’s individual choices and hopefully it will feed out to other people that we are an employer of choice," says Short.

Case Study: Lane4

Consultancy firm Lane4, enables employees to work flexibly to better fit their working lives alongside outside activities.

Natalie Lewis, marketing assistant, is currently ranked 5th in the UK for running the 1,500m and has high hopes of winning a medal for Wales at the Commonwealth Games this year and perhaps competing in the Olympics. When Lewis graduated last summer, she was conscious of the need to find a job that would fit in with her training schedule. "My training is important to me, as is getting my foot on the career ladder," she explains.

The part-time post for marketing assistant at Lane4 fitted the bill, especially as the company allows her to shift her working week to suit her changeable training patterns. Ruth Cavender, head of HR and central business at Lane4, explains that employees are also entitled to ten development days, "which can be used for sporting interests".