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Three crucial ways that unions improve employees’ work-life balance

In the balance.

Trade unions play a pivotal role in securing a work-life balance for employees in the UK, according to new research. This comes at a time where employers increasingly expect employees to take responsibility for it.

According to the most authoritative workplace survey in Britain, three-quarters of workplace managers agree or strongly agree that “it is up to individual employees to balance work and family responsibilities”. And this idea seems to be taking hold – the percentage agreeing has risen significantly since the early 2000s. This is despite the fact that more regulations aimed at improving work-life balance – such as a right to request flexible working – have come into force in recent years.

So it is, perhaps, no wonder that British workers look on in envy at the rights to extended paid leave and other statutory supports to work-life balance enjoyed elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Scandinavian countries.

Our new research, funded by the Trades Union Congress, finds that unions improve work-life balance for employees in Britain in three ways.

First, unions play an important role in increasing the number of work-life balance practices employers implement, over and above those they are required to provide under the law. As well as the option of flexi-time and working from home, these include job sharing schemes, help with childcare, paid emergency care leave and maternity or paternity leave that’s above the statutory minimum.

There are twice as many work-life balance practices in unionised workplaces compared to non-unionised ones (an average of 5.7 versus 2.9), though this gap falls to one work-life balance practice when comparing similar workplaces.

Number of work-life balance practices in unionised and non-unionised workplaces. Alex Bryson and John Forth

The differential is even greater when union bargaining strength is higher – such as when a high percentage of workers have joined the union. This suggests unions target work-life balance issues as a bargaining objective.

Second, the presence of a union recognised for bargaining significantly reduces the incidence of people working long-hours (over 48 hours per week). In addition, we found that unions reduce the perception among employees of a long-hours culture – the belief that you have to work long hours to progress at work.

Third, our research showed that the presence of a recognised union reduces the likelihood that employers will agree that it is up to the employee to balance work and family life. This is important because employers who recognise their own part in creating work life balance for their employees act accordingly by introducing work-life balance practices.

The benefit of having these work-life balance practices is apparent across different industries – in the public and private sector. They come on top of other, perhaps better-known, benefits of having union representation. Things like higher pay, better pensions, and more off-the-job training.

These are all benefits that do not appear to come at the expense of workplace performance. Our research found no difference between the financial performance or labour productivity in union and equivalent non-union workplaces.

Employees in unionised settings appear to experience better work-life balance and have more family friendly practices available to them compared with similar employees in the non-union sector. This is a success story for trade unions that appears to have attracted little attention. And it is a success that is perhaps all the more surprising given the organisational challenges trade unions have faced in recent years.

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