Flexibility and security in the workplace are key to a European work-care balance

Investment in family support is needed to enable parents to combine their care responsibilities with their right to work, according to the WORKCARE project. It indicated that a key aspect to successful policy is the provision of flexibility and security in the workplace for both men and women. To do this, policy will need to consider current national and gender differences.

Through the Lisbon Strategy and the Renewed Social Agenda1, the European Commission is trying to encourage more people to be part of the workforce. However, in the face of an ageing population, it is also important to encourage families to have children. These seemingly contradictory policies can put pressure on families to combine work with care responsibilities.

The three-year WORKCARE project brought together social research experts from seven European countries to describe the patterns of welfare, work and care, and to analyse social policies at both a European and national level. The project used large scale data sets such as the European Social Survey and the International Social Survey Programme to look at patterns across the whole of Europe. These were supplemented by in-depth interviews with parents in seven countries: Denmark, Austria, the UK, Poland, Hungary, Italy and Portugal. There were a number of important findings:

  • Families with both parents working are becoming the normal pattern across Europe, which is congruent with EU policy. Some of the countries with the highest fertility rates are those where public policies enable parents to combine paid employment with care for their children.
  • Countries with the highest degree of childcare support are those with the greatest continuity of employment for men and women over time. However, in many European countries there is a shortage of good quality affordable child care, especially for children less than three years’ old. In the absence of affordable childcare it is usually the women who take time out of work or take on part-time or insecure employment. The extended family and friends provide an important source of support, especially grandparents, and in those countries without affordable childcare there is a higher reliance on the extended family.
  • All European countries provide maternity leave and paternity leave but the length of leave for mothers and fathers varies significantly, as does the level of remuneration. Although fathers report a desire to be more involved in caring for their children, paternity leave is under-utilised and tends to be taken only when there is a high level of compensation.
  • Flexisecurity policies provide both flexibility and security in the labour market, for example part-time and flexi-time work combined with job and income security. Currently these tend to provide flexibility and security for men, but only flexibility with little or no security for women.
  • Gender inequalities exist, for example in flexisecurity policies and parental leave. There are also inequalities between the levels of the occupational hierarchy. Professional and managerial workers have more flexibility in how they organise their work, whilst those in working class employment have much less ability/bargaining power for negotiating flexibility.
  • Several types of welfare regimes were identified across Europe. Closest to European policy objectives was the ‘extensive family policy’ regime that exists in Sweden, Denmark, Belgium and France. Here mothers are back in employment after three months to one year parental leave and rely to a great extent on state provided childcare. Surprisingly this was not always the most expensive, and was comparable with the ‘long-leave, part time’ model in Germany, Austria and Luxembourg where mothers have parental leave for up to three years.

Based on the findings of the project there were a number of policy recommendations:

  • Flexisecurity is a key aspect of European policy to enable a balance between work and care. However, these policies must ensure flexibility and security for both men and women. At present flexicurity policies in Denmark and the Netherlands tend to provide more flexibility for women and more security for men. Flexicurity therefore needs to take into account a gendered perspective.
  • Policy should take a life course perspective and consider the consequences of periods of leave on careers, social security benefits, pensions etc for both men and women.
  • A ‘gender lens’ must be used to evaluate all policy proposals. There must also be further progression in gender equality in the workplace, especially in terms of the pay gap between men and women.
  • Employers need to be encouraged to adopt family friendly policies so that both men and women feel able to take their entitlements. Well-paid maternity and paternity leave are essential and men must be encouraged to take paternity leave. At the end of parental leave both mothers and fathers should be able to return to their previous job.
  • There should be greater provision of affordable, high quality childcare. Reliance on informal care may come into conflict with other policies. For example encouraging older women to enter the workplace could reduce the availability of grandmothers to provide care. Those who provide informal care should be supported in ensuring they meet the children’s developmental needs.


1 See: http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=547

WORKCARE – Social Quality and the Changing Relationships Between Work, Care and Welfare in Europe (duration: 1/10/2006 – 30/9/2009) was a Specific Targeted Research Project funded under the 6th Framework Programme for Research of the European Union, Thematic Priority 7 - Citizens and governance in a knowledge-based society.

See: http://www.abdn.ac.uk/socsci/research/nec/workcare/

Contact: Claire Wallace, claire.wallace@abdn.ac.uk