Work life balance

UK flagThe British are increasingly aware of the issue of work-life balance. The dynamic nature of the economy and fast-paced business environment forces many employees to work quite long hours. Customers in such an advanced economy expect to receive service at times that suit them, which in turn requires many employees to work extra hours. In many cases, family life may give way to the career of one or even both parents. UK organisations are however, becoming ever more aware of the business case for a positive work-life balance and many of them are implementing policies intended to reduce the pressure of work on private life. The current thinking is that an improved work-life balance can help all parties – the organisation, the individual and the customer.

Although the working week is officially limited to 48 hours, the UK has opted out of the European Working Time Directive, which means that some employees may work more hours by written consent. The two most frequent concerns amongst UK employees are long hours and the intensity of work. In fact, many employees say they are working as hard as they can and could not imagine being able to work any harder. All these factors contribute to awareness of work-life balance as a pressing issue and how work demands often stand in the way of family commitments.

It is not uncommon for managers to take their work home almost every day. For many professional workers, Internet access and mobile phones represent a complete loss of privacy and downtime, even when at home. Naturally, this has a negative impact on the family unit in the United Kingdom. Only a small percentage of employers have family-friendly policies or personal support services in place to moderate the situation; however, this is gradually increasing.

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National Holidays

The UK has relatively few public holidays compared to other European countries, which are usually referred to as ‘Bank Holidays’; the original meaning comes from the fact that these were days when banks would officially be closed. Most retail shops now stay open on public holidays in order to take advantage of customer demand, even though this practice is against the principal that Bank Holidays exist in order to give the employee a break from work. People who agree to work on Bank Holidays generally get paid extra for their efforts.

People normally take advantage of bank holidays in order to do activities that they may not get the opportunity to do on a more frequent basis, including shopping for clothing or household items, or visiting theme parks or seaside resorts. This means that bank holidays are often the busiest and most profitable trading days for the retail, service and entertainment industries and for the significant parts of the UK economy that revolve around tourism. The UK has a large number of traditional beach resorts, with those in the south west of the country benefiting from a warmer climate and fantastic scenery. Accessibility to travel abroad has become much easier since the year 2000 with the arrival of low cost airlines which provide access to a wide number of European destinations at very reasonable prices.

When planning a business trip to the United Kingdom, it is advisable to avoid the months of July and August as this is when many British families take their annual holidays. Similarly, travel during holiday times such as Christmas and Easter would make it more difficult and expensive for business trips.

Due to the relatively small size of the UK, compared to its population, the roads and rail networks tend to get very busy around holiday periods. So, it is best to prepare any travel plans well in advance and to allow additional travel time to ensure your journey is as pleasant as possible.

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Working hours

In theory, typical office hours are from 9:00 am. to 5:00 pm., Monday to Friday. In practice, this can vary quite considerably and shift work is now common in the manufacturing and service industries. Most professionals and office workers will have a required or expected start time anywhere from 7am through until 10am and will work an 8-hour day.  However, many employees work considerably longer hours and most office workers will be at their desks by 8:30 am. Executives and salaried professionals often work even longer hours as required, in order to get the job done. Sometimes, the British prefer to stay late at the office, rather than take work home with them. This is changing though, and through the introduction of flexible working, sustainable travel and improvements in technology, employees can now start work earlier and end later.

Some Government offices particularly in rural areas tend to close for lunch between 1:00 pm. and 2:00 pm. but stay open until 5:30 pm, however the number of such organisations is decreasing, with most working throughout the day. For shops, opening hours have been almost completely deregulated, with some supermarkets opening 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Banks are generally open from 9:30 am. to 4:30 pm. on weekdays, with most now having extended opening hours on one or two evenings in the week and a half day on Saturdays. Shops, restaurants and tourist attractions tend to open longer hours in London and in larger cities around the UK.

The UK government has adopted the EU directive preventing employers from forcing employees to work more than 48 hours in a working week, by taking advantage of the “opt out” option. Therefore where employers and employees agree they are able to ‘opt out’ and work additional hours that may be available should they choose to do so.  However, few employees regularly work over 48 hours per week with the exception of doctors and those in the hospitality industry.

Technological advances have opened up the ability to work at different hours to reflect the time differences around the world. Most of the big financial institutions in the City of London trade 24 hours a day to service the Asian Pacific and American markets. Such employers will have a shift system in operation, so there may be 3 shifts of employees working 8 hours each to provide this cover.

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Working culture

Traditional working practices have changed in recent years with the UK becoming a more multicultural and diverse society.

Businesses are increasingly trading longer hours to compete in a global economy. The traditional image of a British worker in a pin stripe suit working Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm is long gone.

Developments in technology have freed up many workers to work from home. European legislation has enabled part time and temporary workers to be protected by law. All organisations have to comply with legislation designed to protect the workforce in a wide range of areas from equality and health and safety to the minimum wage, which guarantees employees a basic minimum rate of pay.

Businesses also create their own policies and procedures to complement their own values and corporate culture. The best way to establish what these are is by talking to the employees and asking how the organisation works.

Many organisations have employee representatives, or trade unions; to protect the interests of the workforce and discuss various employment related subjects with management. Unions and employee representatives are a good source of information about a company or industry although the level of union membership is in decline.

Health insurance

European Economic Area (EEA) citizens have access to free or reduced-cost healthcare in the UK. The National Health Service (NHS) offers free medical care to all UK residents at the point of delivery. If you are visiting from abroad you will need to prove any entitlements and may need to pay fees and reclaim these against your own insurance, if you are ineligible. It is recommended that you find out whether your country of residence has a healthcare agreement with the UK and what rights you might have under that agreement, prior to your date of travel.

It is important to note that not all treatments are available on the NHS and only publicly funded health treatment is included in reciprocal healthcare agreements. This means that some treatments can be free, for some you have to pay part of the costs, and in other cases the full amount and then claim a refund on your travel insurance. So keep all your bills, prescriptions and receipts and it is always advisable to consider taking out  travel insurance for even short business visits.

Any medications that are government regulated must be prescribed by a doctor and can only be sold in pharmacies. Prescriptions are charged on a regulated scale, so the cost of medication is subsidised by the government. Medication that does not require a prescription is sold through pharmacies, supermarkets and various retail outlets at market prices. Emergency healthcare is provided by the ambulance service and local hospitals, but if non-emergency hospital treatment is required you must be referred by a doctor. Dental care in the UK is only available free of charge to minors under the age of 18 and those in receipt of government benefits or who meet some other pre-determined criteria.

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