Flexible working is becoming a must for many. One recent report found a quarter of UK workers have refused a job due to a lack of flexibility. This number jumps to 40% for millennial workers for whom work-life balance and flexible working is key when evaluating a job prospect.
Many hope that flexible working can help tackle the persistent gender pay gap. This is why the UK government announced a review of the right to flexible working in 2019 and the prime minister, Theresa May, said firms should strive to make it a reality for all staff, while urging companies to ensure women are better represented at senior levels. But my work with Tanja van der Lippe into the reality of how flexible working plays out shows that it can end up reinforcing gender stereotypes if cultural norms go unchecked.
Nearly one in five [18%] of working mums have been forced to leave their jobs because a flexible working request has been turned down, according to Workingmums.co.uk’s annual survey published today .
The survey of over 2,000 women in Workingmums.co.uk’s 10th anniversary year shows that over a quarter of mums in work [26%] have had a flexible working request turned down. Some 12 per cent said their employer did not even seem to consider their request at all and over a quarter [27%] said the reason given for turning down the request was not one which is allowable under flexible working legislation.
There are now over three million employees who are regular night-workers in the UK – an increase of 6.9% between 2007 and 2014.
In 2014, 14.9% of male employees were night workers, this is compared to 9.7% of female employees. However, the number of women working nights has grown at a faster rate: 12% since 2007 for women, as opposed to a 4% increase in regular night working for men.
There are negative health implications for those who work nights, such as heightened risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and depression. Less attention has been given to the impacts on home life, relationships and work-life balance.
A new report from the TUC demonstrates that night working can increase the risk of relationship problems, can affect the emotional well being of a night worker’s children, and is associated with higher childcare costs. However, these negative impacts can be mitigated when employees have more influence and control over their shift patterns.
Employers must properly consider and address all the implications for staff of night working and how best to mitigate negative outcomes. Decisions to extend night working need to involve consultation and negotiation with workers’ representatives to ensure fair and safe outcomes.
Despite the popularity, and range, of discussion about flexible working it remains viewed as something pursued only by those without ambition.
That is, flexible working is viewed, simply, as working less. This is problematic as contemporary work cultures still reward working long hours, “as if our achievements are somehow less impressive if we haven’t sweated blood and sacrificed our sanity, health and home life to get there”.
The stereotypical flexible worker tends to be a parent (usually a mother) trying to adapt their work schedules with childcare. However, there is a larger pool of people who don’t have family commitments and don’t want to cut their hours, but who would still like to take advantage of flexible working practices and benefits it could bring to their personal and working lives.
Yet, while flexible working remains seen as a second-class option it will not deliver its potential in promoting employee retention and productivity. Workplaces need to undergo a cultural change wherein mere ‘presenteeism’ isn’t accord special significance over more meaningful measures of employee achievement at work.
The Eurofound 2014 Yearbook on Living and Working in Europe covers recent employment trends, highlights job creation and job loss has occurred, and suggests where investment in future growth is best directed.
Amongst its findings, data show that of those establishments that offer working time flexibility 44% do so only on a limited basis, with 35% having a selective offering. Only 20% of establishments have schemes that are encompassing; i.e. offer a broad range of flexible working time arrangements that usually are available to most or all employees.
However, analysis shows that those establishments offering flexible work on a encompassing basis have higher levels of performance and employee wellbeing. Those with selective provision have similar levels of well-being but lower performance, while limited provision establishments have lower performance and well-being than those with encompassing schemes.
It has often been assumed that a lack of family-friendly policies has kept many women from promotion to the highest ranks of the business world, and companies are starting to address this concern.
It may be that the lack of family-friendly policies may not be the most pressing issue. Rather the surge in hours worked by both men and women should be of primary concern as 24/7 work cultures ‘lock gender inequality in place’.
Issues of work-family conflict remain understood as primarily a woman’s problem; family-friendly policies designed to deal with work-family conflict target women and have unintended negative consequences for their careers. Yet, providing family-friend policy allows companies to focus on a narrow set of fixes and ignore more difficult questions about cultures of overwork.
Many mothers looking to return work assume part-time schedules would be an ideal solution. However, research shows that many of those working mothers on official part-time schedules work well outside the bounds of them. Researcher Laura Vanderkam points out that:
Even though the part-timers had often taken pay cuts, and risked being seen as less committed to their careers than full-time colleagues, they weren’t necessarily working that much less.
Thus, rather than shifting to part-time contracts, returning mothers should consider returning full-time but with flexible working patterns.
Yvonne Lott, of the Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftlichen Institut (WSI) in Germany, questions whether working time flexibility can really deliver employee autonomy.
Flexibility in working time makes it possible to reconcile work with the affairs of private life. Whether this is caring for children or elderly parents, or pursuing a qualification alongside work – flexible working times give employees freedom to organize their time. In particular when employees can themselves determine how to organize their working time, their autonomy at work can seem unlimited. Self-determination of work schedules promises control over one’s own working time and thus autonomy over one’s time in general. Employees with such working times should, then, have relatively stress-free (work) lives. Right? I am skeptical. Continue reading →
This article reports on a new meta-analysis of research covering 50,000 workers which found that those who checked work email or took work calls after the office was shut were more likely to have problems with their health and private lives.
It goes on to note that while new technology was supposed to provide flexibility for workers, it actually encouraged them to be always ‘switched on’, blurring boundaries between work and life and causing work-family conflict.
The research authors note that:
“Researchers, employers and employees need to work jointly on how to make the use of technologies as beneficial as possible, reducing the negative effects. Otherwise, there is a danger of unintended knock-on effects.”