The flexibility paradox

A new book argues that flexible working can result in overwork and less work life balance, but says it doesn’t need to be like that.

Stressed women at laptop


Does flexible working really provide a better work–life balance, enhance workers’ well-being and gender equality?

Professor Heejung Chung’s new book – The Flexibility Paradox draws on research around the world on flexible working and suggests flexible working can lead to workers working longer and harder, with work encroaching on family life – particularly for women.

She says flexible working can lead to a blurring of the lines between work and not working and can mean workers are expected to do overtime in return for greater control over when and where they work or feel they are being done a favour by being given more flexibility which makes them feel they have to work harder and longer.

But Professor Chung, who is based at the University of Kent, says it doesn’t need to be like that if there were stronger rights and protections for flexible workers and changes in the way we think about work. She argues that cultural and institutional contexts shape how flexibility is used at work, for instance, worries about job security, fewer rights for individuals and an emphasis on busyness at work being a badge of honour.

Why do flexible workers overwork?

Professor Chung, a sociologist, argues too that workers internalise capitalist ideals where the risks and failures of their work life are considered a personal failure.  She adds that the freedom to work whenever and wherever you want can result in workers feeling the need to work everywhere and all the time in order to make themselves more marketable/competitive.

For women this is even more complicated as, at the same time as work life has become more intense, the pressures on mothers when it comes to parenting have increased. As men and fathers are still considered the main breadwinners of the family, fathers do not expand their domestic work when working flexibly, however. Instead they expand their paid work.

Professor Chung adds that there is still a lot of stigma about flexible working as well as gendered assumptions, with flexible workers still seen as not as committed, motivated or productive. This explains, she says, why mothers are less likely to get access to flexible working/home working practices and are also more likely to experience career penalties when working flexibly. This is because managers and co-workers assume that women will prioritise housework/childcare when working from home, whilst fathers as breadwinners will prioritise work, she says.

What can we do?

Flexible working replicates and amplifies work culture and gender norms, says Professor Chung. Employers can help address the inequities that arise from this by supporting fathers and men in using flexible working for care purposes to tackle the gendered flexibility paradox; and communicating clearly the rationale for restricting workers’ use of flexible working. They can also tackle the long-hours ‘always-on’ culture by communicating to workers that having rest and physical/mental detachment away from work contributes to enhancing productivity and other goals of the company; take a closer look at their Key Performance Indicators to ensure that they don’t promote the idea that working long hours equates to productivity; and showcase good practice cases of workers – especially senior male role models – who have a good work–life balance whilst maintaining productivity/efficiencies at work to tackle the ideas around flexibility stigma.

Individuals can place more boundaries between work and private life, join a union, take breaks and be more aware of who does what in a couple to avoid falling into assumed traditional gender roles as well as having conversations about this.

When it comes to government, Professor Chung calls for a day one right to flexible working, protection against discrimination for flexible workers, a new right to disconnect and the introduction of policies that can help fathers be more involved in childcare and housework, such as wellpaid ear-marked paternity leaves. She adds that “shorter working as a national strategy can be a way to tackle the long hours work culture, promote equal division of work across the population, and help shift our societies to be less work-centric which can stop the flexibility paradox from happening”.

*The Flexibility Paradox by Heejung Chung is published by Policy Press, March 2022.

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