Why flexible working should be at the core of any staff mental health policy

With new jobs advertised as flexible flatlining and more backlash against remote working, what can parents do to get the flexibility they need?

Upset women on the phone


As the backlash against remote and hybrid working continues with Amazon reported to have a bar on promoting anyone who doesn’t return to the office for at least three days a week and a new report suggesting employers advertising flexible working of any kind is flatlining, it’s worth unpicking some of the reasons parents – but not only parents – need flexibility. It’s not just a nice to have. Employers can have all the mental health first aiders in the world, but if they don’t back that up with practical measures that lift some of the pressures that contribute to poor mental health at work then they are barely touching the sides of the problem. For so many employers mental health support seems to be about problems out there, not problems caused by or exacerbated by work. It would be good to see employers who say they are doing something about mental health tackle workload, work life balance, bullying and many of the other work-related problems that contribute to poor mental health.

Especially in the current era of backlash. It’s ironic that the backlash comes at the point at which the fractures in the care infrastructure have been laid bare. The story which most sticks in the mind of late for its complete lack of understanding about what is going on is the Daily Mail’s recent article about ‘mum-ployees’ who are ‘shirking from home’ with the kids. It’s hard to know where to begin with that one.

Of course, many parents do have the kids around when they are working from home – after school, when they are sick, in the holidays. Part of this is because after school and holiday care is so expensive and often not geared to people with more than one child. What’s more holiday clubs in our part of the world only seem to run from 10-3pm. So obviously you will have kids around at some point during the day even if you can afford to use them.

A lot of parents take time out – a late ‘lunch hour’ – to pick up their kids and then jump straight back into work or work later to make up the time or work earlier. The kids may disappear to their rooms or watch a film or have a friend round to play computer games with or the like. Secondary school-aged kids rarely even mumble a ‘fine’ when you ask them how their day was before they disappear.

Then there are the younger kids. So why are parents working with pre-school children around? Could the cost and availability of care be a factor? We are investigating the what happens in the so-called childcare deserts when nurseries close down, give many are in a parlous financial state. There seems to be little information held on this, but the options seem limited, given childminder numbers have plummeted too in the last few years.

Why flexible working and childcare are essentials

A Bright Horizons survey last year found 62% of those who don’t have formal or paid childcare have their kids around ‘during the working day’ [the working day being a movable feast in my house certainly], most of them after school or in the holidays at some point. Dads were much less likely than mums to work flexible to fulfil childcare commitments [34% compared to 60% of women].

Some of these may not work for an employer. They may be freelance or self employed. Many women do this kind of work in order to get the flexibility they need so they are not so frazzled by battling through traffic or transport delays to get to pick-ups or to be on hand in case of illness or emergencies. It’s not just the women, of course, but it is still mainly the women who drop out for these reasons. Going freelance or self employed makes childcare even more difficult. If your work is not guaranteed or regular – or well paid – is it worth paying for full-time childcare?

Employers can, of course, lay down that parents should have childcare in place during working hours. Some may even help out with childcare costs, although they obviously can’t fund something that’s not there. Many parents have a complex patchwork of formal and informal childcare in place. They may, for instance, use the 30 hours and then get their parents or a friend to pick up and have their kids for a few hours, given 30 hours doesn’t cover the full working week let alone commute times. If any element of that patchwork falls through logistical nightmares can ensue – just thinking about the possibility every day is exhausting.

Work flexibility and childcare go together for parents. They make life easier. They make life less of a battle and they help people focus on their work. Having people sitting at their desks doesn’t mean they are not constantly thinking about childcare logistics. I remember ringing my partner at one point after I missed the train by 30 seconds having got caught in traffic dropping off at schools and nurseries and telling him: “I will die if I do this a second longer.” That is the reality. Until employers – and out-of-touch policymakers – face it or are forced to do a swap with a parent and experience it for themselves for weeks on end I fear we will not move forwards.

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