The importance of flexible working for wellbeing

At Working Families—the UK’s work-life balance charity—we have seen first-hand the huge impact that COVID-19 has had on working parents and carers. As the pandemic unfolded, we were inundated by queries from working parents and carers urgently seeking our help as they struggled to remain in work and meet the needs of their families. We estimate that we saw up to a six-fold increase in the number of people getting in touch with our free legal advice helpline, almost overnight. The comprehensive online advice on COVID-19 we have compiled based on the queries we have received has been viewed, to date, by more than 1 in 24 UK working parents.

Even before the pandemic, our research found that working parents often struggle to find a balance that works for their families and their own wellbeing. Our 2020 Modern Families Index found working parents identified family as their highest priority—and, sadly, many parents reported that work negatively impacted on their family life. Forty-eight per cent said work affected their ability to spend time together as a whole family, while 46% said work prevented them from seeing their children often or all the time. Forty-five per cent of parents in couple households said their relationship with their partner was negatively affected, too.

Parents also reported that work affected their ability to manage their wellbeing, and, where work overlapped into their home life, they reported negative consequences often or all the time. This included failing to get enough sleep (47%), being unable to find time to exercise (45%), not having enough time to prepare a healthy diet (36%), and relationship problems with their partner (32%).

So, what can we do about this? Particularly now, while the pandemic and the measures to manage it so strongly impact all our lives—and particularly on the lives of working parents, who are continuing to juggle work with unpredictable schooling schedules and gaps in wraparound care? We believe that offering more autonomy and choice through flexible working is key to improving wellbeing.

We suggest employers start by advertising all jobs flexibly, using a simple statement like Happy to Talk Flexible Working, unless there are good business reasons a role can’t be done flexibly. Remember: flexible working is not only working from home, but it also includes part-time or reduced hours options, different start and finish times, and whether any or all the work can be done from home. During the first lockdown, employers learned that many, many more jobs than they’d previously considered can be done on a flexible basis, and this has led to a huge demand from parents and carers for more flexible workplaces. Over the summer, we surveyed over 1,000 working parents and carers—and 97% said they wanted their future work arrangements to be flexible.

It’s not enough to advertise jobs with flexible options; jobs need to be designed properly. Employers need to think through how jobs can be done flexibly by properly considering the tasks the role requires and whether these can be done in the hours allotted.  This should help create more ‘human-sized’ jobs and help unlock more high-quality, better-paid part-time jobs—often crucial to parents being able to work at their skill level and to finding the right balance between work, caring for their family, and looking after their own wellbeing.

Employers sometimes worry about how flexible working might impact productivity. But we’ve found that truly flexible cultures allow workers to thrive. We recently surveyed our employer members and found that 25 out of 26 respondents said that productivity had been the same or better since switching to more flexible working patterns during lockdown. One possible explanation for this could be an increased focus on deliverables and objectives, and less of a focus on the amount of time being spent in an office or at a desk. Another is that a culture built on autonomy and trust leads to better employee morale, which is central to performance. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that flexibility is a key part of the wellbeing equation for working parents and carers.

Thank you to Jane van Zyl, CEO of Working Families for this article.

About Working Families

Working Families is the UK’s work-life balance charity. Our mission is to remove the barriers that people with caring responsibilities face in the workplace.

We provide free legal advice to parents and carers on their rights at work. We give employers the tools they need to support their employees while creating a flexible, high-performing workforce. And we advocate on behalf of the UK’s 13 million working parents, influencing policy through campaigns informed by ground-breaking research.

Parental Choice work with businesses to support the wellbeing of their employees.

We do this through our bespoke programmes for larger businesses and through our new service PC Employee Care for smaller businesses with up to 100 employees.

Get in touch to see how we can help.  |  020 8979 6453

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