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workingmums.co.uk takes a dive into an important new book on flexible working and how to make it better.
Why does flexible working so often fail to provide a better work life balance? That is the gist of a new book which offers an academic insight into the phenomenon of overworking homeworkers, part-time workers who end up working almost full-time hours and all the myriad other ways in which flexible workers are either exploited by others or exploit themselves.
The book, The Flexibility Paradox by Heejung Chung from the University of Kent, explores the phenomenon of flexible working both before and after Covid, looking at the demand for it, trends, the business case vs the work life balance case, the flexibility paradox [and how this affects women], stigma around flexible working and what we can do about it.
Its main argument is that the problem of work life balance is not flexible working and so more flexible working won’t necessarily fix it. She says the main barrier to work life balance is the underlying structural factors that guide our behaviour, our gender norms and how we view work – for instance, the fact that our whole lives are viewed through the lens of work, including our social lives.
“Flexible working is merely an amplifier,” she states. For Professor Chung, work is so dominant not just because much of it is insecure and we have little negotiating power, but also because of the growing emphasis on loving your work and the ’ideal worker’ culture where work comes first and if you don’t sacrifice everything to it you are considered uncommitted or not passionate about your work. She writes: “Workers are expected to work very long hours, to pursue a passion, because your work now needs to be your passion. Our culture is one where increasingly we are expected to be passionate about our jobs and made to think that we are the curators of our own destinies – that is, entrepreneurs of our own careers.”
That is why, she says, flexible working often leads to overwork and the blurring of boundaries between work and home life. For women there is another issue: that female-dominated professions like health and education are likely to have less access to flexible working and are generally paid less while the norm is that women still do most of the unpaid work at home at a time when what we expect from parenting has become more intense. That means women are often forced to reduce their hours and take lower paid jobs, which attract a flexibility stigma [how can they be committed?]. Meanwhile, for men flexible working – if they can get it – often means longer hours and pressure to conform more to the ‘ideal worker’ model. The result is that gender inequalities are exacerbated.
Professor Chung says that while Covid has seen a greater take-up of flexible working with work life balance benefits for some, it seems to have encouraged a certain type of flexible working, namely remote working, which can result in an emphasis on longer hours and on working when sick.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way, she argues. Cultures where work is not so central and where progressive gender norms prevail have better access to flexible working, with family friendly policies leading to widespread uptake. The problem is, says Professor Chung, that much of the research on flexible working has been conducted in the US and UK where the ideal working culture and traditional gender norms are prevalent.
What is needed, she states, is a change in how we measure productivity and commitment and how we view caring responsibilities. Greater uptake of flexible working, with a legal basis for workers to decide when and where they work, legal guarantees of sufficient time to rest, compensation for homeworking costs, ‘good worker’ role models, less stigma around overworking and the introduction of work life balance satisfaction as a KPI for managers, can normalise it and encourage greater sharing of care responsibilities.
Professor Chung concludes by saying that we need to hold out against the cultural norm around busyness and the way we embrace it as a badge of honour because doing so may encourage “a continuous spiral of increased competition not only about ourselves but for others who may not have the liberty nor the job security to resist this trend”. “Deliberate rest can be an act of social justice,” she says.
*The Flexibility Paradox: why flexible working leads to (self-)exploitation by Heejung Chung is published by Policy Press.