For such a large employer of women, the NHS has been painfully slow in adopting family-friendly policies. And yet the health service continues to haemorrhage staff because people find it too difficult to juggle the demands of work and home, costing the public purse millions of pounds in training which will never be used and untold experience and knowledge which will be forever lost to the NHS.

With the Department of Health's human resources strategy now in place and the provisions of the Employment Relations Act coming into force, the health service has an opportunity to make the change. It will not be cheap. Nor will it be easy. As Cheryl Kershaw of Pay and Workforce Research told a seminar last week, a substantial minority of managers have little sympathy with staff who say they need time off to deal with family emergencies, while some staff, who do not benefit from the few flexibilities on offer to those with children, resent what they see as unfair treatment.

Yet flexible, family-friendly employment policies can be made to work for the organisation both financially and in terms of morale and productivity. Most people like working for good employers who recognise that work is just one part of their lives, and will go to some lengths to stay with such organisations.

Although stuck in social attitudes dating back decades in some cases, thepre-Thatcherite NHS at least recognised that the social contract it had with its staff was unique: pay was poor by comparison with jobs in other sectors, but there were other benefits which people valued. The New NHS needs to recapture those principles and update them.