Series on Work-Life Balance: Scottish Court Service

In this write up on Work-Life Balance read how the Scottish Court Service a government organization, has incorporated work-life balance measures to create a congenial work environment.

The Scottish Court Service (SCS) comprises 52 court sites and employs approximately 1,000 civil servants.

According to SCS Human Resource Director Alan Swift, SCS has always been enlightened in its human resource policies. However, it was not until 1998 and ’99 that SCS started to get serious about work-life balance. Discussions with the Public and Commercial Services Union over paternity leave, the loss of some key staff (in particular women, who comprise 57 percent of the workforce), competition for recruiting quality staff, and an internal exploration about what it meant to work for the service all contributed to the new focus on work-life balance policies and practice. The most important of these factors was the loss of female staff, who said they were leaving because they were unable to reconcile their work and family commitments.

Today, SCS offers a variety of such arrangements, which, according to Chief Executive John Ewing, “help people to give their best at work” and improve staff retention. The new arrangements also signal to current and potential employees that they are valued and treated well in the organization.

The SCS developed the work-life balance policies and procedures using a participative approach including the involvement of all staff. The birth of his third child five years ago was a life-changing event for Joe Smith, then an executive officer at Dumbarton Sheriff Court. Smith’s daughter, Rebecca, was born with a complex heart disease and not expected to live. However, against the odds and after 13 operations which started when she was three days old, Rebecca is now in the first year of elementary school. She has spent about 18 months of her life in the hospital and faces a heart-lung transplant operation at some point in the future.

“From the word go, the managers at SCS supported us,” explains Smith. While Smith and his wife were coping with their daughter’s fragility for the first 18 months of her life, Smith tried to manage work. For a time after he was promoted to the Stirling Sheriff Court, he was driving 84 miles a day from home to work and Rebecca’s hospital. Realizing this situation was not sustainable—and even dangerous—Joe contacted Swift. Smith’s wife, then a court officer in Dunbarton Sheriff Court, was immediately granted extended special leave, and Smith special leave. Smith also accessed the SCS Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for private counselling on managing his daughter’s problems. This service is public-sector (general taxpayer) funded, so it is free to SCS employees though it is privately run on a contract basis. The aim is to help employees deal with any issues that affect their performance and/or attendance at work. As Smith explains, he “began to see the benefits and let them help…it was almost like instant relief, trusting in the policies and the people.” So important was this help that he said he should have done it sooner.

Now in Glasgow Sheriff Court and promoted to higher executive officer, Smith cannot praise the handling of his circumstances highly enough: “All the managers have supported me, and it’s two-way.” Smith speaks highly of the support he, his wife and family received from SCS. Their exceptional circumstances speak to the value of work-life balance arrangements in this organization. Ewing also testifies to the benefits of work-life balance initiatives: “in a pressurized work environment, work-life balance programs signal the value of staff, they can also reduce stress and allow staff to keep contributing at work.”

The SCS currently has a committee, which includes employees who have primary responsibility for caring for dependents, that is focusing on the dimensions of care issues other than childcare (for example, elder care). It is also considering surveying employees about their opinions of SCS’ work-life balance policies during the next staff opinion survey.