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Country Context Matters in Work-Life Adoption

28 January 2010—As many as 70% of American and 67% of British employers state that flexible hours are available for employees, compared with only 36% of French employers. The same pattern is evident for the availability of working at home on a regular basis: 35% of American and 26% of British employers compared with just 10% of French employers.

In general, work-life balance is a major issue in Europe. Work-life workplace initiatives most typically include flexible working options—flexible hours, telework, part time, term-time, job-sharing and time banks—as well as information or financial support to enhance employee private life, and various onsite services including childcare and eldercare facilities. In 2000 the Lisbon Strategy was established to position the European Union as the world's most dynamic and competitive economy by 2010. To accomplish this, however, European leaders set specific targets for increased employment levels, including: 70% of the total EU population, 60% of women, and fully 50% of seniors by 2010. In the context of an aging workforce and of growing needs for care, European leaders recognize that great efforts are required in the fields of gender equality, distribution of time over the life course, and quality of life. Therefore, work-life balance has risen on the agenda of social policy makers.

Work-life balance is also a widespread quest for European citizens. More than in the US, work-life balance and the ability to take time off from work contribute to social status. The need for work-life balance is particularly salient in France and the UK because of the high fertility rates: 1.9 and 1.8 children per woman, while the average in Europe is 1.4. These rates compare with the US where there are one or just under two children per woman.

So, why are organizational work-life initiatives endorsed in some countries such as the US or the UK, while they generate little interest in France?

From analyses conducted by Sloan Center on Aging & Work Researcher Ariane Ollier-Malaterre, five main factors explain the lower adoption of organizational work-life initiatives in France.

  1. Employers v. the State—Perception of who has legitimate influence over private life
    In the UK and the US, family is considered a private entity. The community and the family are the preferred providers, though employers are also active in offering supports. In France, however, the State issues regulations pertaining to family life, and public provisions for early childhood are extensive compared with other Western countries (for example, subsidized daycare centers before three years of age, followed by public school). As a result of these state provisions, employers are not perceived as legitimate to address issues pertaining to private life.
  2. The role of unions
    British and American unions have gradually become more interested in work-life. As a result, UK and US unions have tended to act in two ways - either by creating a collaborative climate between the unions, the employers, and the government or through exerting active pressures to frostier the adoption of work-life practices. In France, though, most unions are suspicious of and even defensive regarding flexible working practices. The November 2005 national agreement on telework is typical: it focuses on protecting workers from increased employer requirements and intrusion in the private sphere of life, while barely mentioning any benefit for the employee or the employer.
  3. Approach to legal mandates
    UK Human Resource managers tend to adopt more collaborative practices, acting as facilitators focused on training, communication, and alignment of HR strategy with the global business strategy. French HR officers, however, are kept busy by operational constraints, such as compliance with a stratified legislation, and the necessity to monitor ongoing relationships with the unions, the works councils, and official authorities such as the Inspection du Travail.
  4. Awareness of work-life practices
    HR officers act as gate keepers for companies, in the sense that they are the ones capable of identifying a new issue, gathering knowledge, and finally promoting it to top management. As far as HR management practices are concerned, France has been termed a "cultural island," distinct from the Anglo-American business culture, with most French HR managers having weak knowledge of work-life practices.
  5. Work-life as business issue
    Making sense of work-life issues is the final step. In the US, work-life initiatives have reached a momentum and are now considered as an issue of global competitive advantage; as such, work-life practices are fully integrated with other HR policies, including gender and diversity initiatives, rather than just reduced to child care issues. However, the French tendency to make overt distinctions between honorable social behavior and inferior business interests has reduced the adoption of work-life initiatives.

—Chad Minnich, Associate Director of Marketing & Communications, Sloan Center on Aging & Work. 

More on the Country Context Studies »

Access more on this particular study at:
Ollier-Malaterre, A. (2009). Organizational work-life initiatives: context matters. France compared to the UK and the US. Community, Work & Family, 12 (2), p.159 - 178.