One year ago, months of effort came to a rewarding end when the Work-life Balance Directive was signed into law. When transposed by Member States, it will concretely benefit millions of working families across the EU. At the start, the Directive sought to tackle gender imbalance and a working culture that was at odds with a healthy family life.
The initiative was considered among the most important in the sphere of employment and social affairs, as it recognised the new realities of family life for European citizens in the 21st century. However, those realities have already been challenged. Now, one year later, it is worth reflecting on the Directive in a radically new light, as Europe starts exiting its Coronavirus lockdown. While new challenges cropped up during the pandemic, the goals have remained the same.
The gender gap remains a prevalent headache for those fighting for equality in Europe. It is about the pay and pension gaps, but it also concerns an even greater disparity in employment. Last year, figures showed that there was a difference of more than ten percent in employment rates between men and women across Europe.
“Nobody should have to choose between caring for their family and holding down a job: the two should be able to coexist and complement each other meaningfully”
Malta, regrettably, had the largest gap in the EU. But where has all this stemmed from? Proponents of the Directive identified an inadequate balance between working life and family life that left women particularly disadvantaged. Working arrangements that preclude flexibility to raise and care for children, for example, still leave women disproportionately vulnerable.
Nobody should have to choose between caring for their family and holding down a job: the two should be able to coexist and complement each other meaningfully. Concretely, the Directive gives the right to request more flexible working arrangements, including for those workers with dependents who need special care. These have been considered in the Directive, with more leave guaranteed for those who need it.
Achieving this balance has been proven to reap considerable benefits. The employment gap between men and women hits Member States to the tune of €370bn annually, meaning that there are not only social arguments for eradicating inequality but also highly persuasive economic ones. Fathers are set to benefit in line with the same goals. Parental leave was typically reserved for women, but this view is becoming increasingly antiquated.
The Work-life Balance Directive grants a minimum of ten days paternity leave, alongside two months of paid leave for parents of young children. This is an important recognition of the increasingly diverse family arrangements that serve to accommodate the shared responsibility for raising children, hopefully resulting in a healthier lifestyle, ultimately thanks to a better work-life balance.
Of course, I cannot speak about work-life flexibility and changing family arrangements without remarking on the Coronavirus measures that have profoundly challenged the boundary between working and family life. The Directive has been a positive step in accommodating a healthier family life in a time when technology has brought work into our homes.
This has never been more true or more pertinent than in this current Coronavirus era. Across Europe, we’ve seen employers adapt rapidly to the need for social distancing measures in order to keep their businesses going. Proponents of the Directive probably didn’t imagine the scale of the drastic changes.
Only a year on, what was seen as a distant eventuality - even by some as a dubious social experiment - has resulted in viable options for the future. Generally, the working arrangements that have been made in response to the Coronavirus show the degree to which work and life can be balanced through the use of technology already at our disposal.
Video conferencing is the most obvious one, but communities have noticed that traffic has dissipated in areas that would previously have been chock-a-block. Workers who would have usually had to invest hours on end travelling by air have now been pushed to work from home. The reduced pollution and traffic have helped to give productivity a boost.
“The Directive has been a positive step towards accommodating a healthier family life in a time when technology has brought work into our homes”
Workers feel as if they have greater control over how they manage their lives - a core principle of the Directive. However, not everything has been quite as positive. The immediate economic shock has seen mass redundancies that, once again, have disproportionately impacted women. The best we can do now is to take on board the lessons that the pandemic has taught us.
For example, one positive phenomenon to come out of all this concerns the employers who were reluctant to welcome some of the Directive’s measures. The final text was, in fact, a compromise that ensured employer’s concerns were also addressed. Today, the business community is not only recognising the viability of such flexibility, it is also seeing the benefits.
Opposition to some of the measures, which were lamented as going too far for employers, are now being viewed from a radically new perspective. I hope that these reflections will feed into the transposition of this Directive, which is set to be concluded in 2022.
This shift in mentality will hopefully expedite the process towards achieving the healthiest balance possible, to help Europeans achieve their fullest potential and contribute to building a fairer society.