Work that’s fit for the 21st century

The way we work in today’s endlessly turbulent world is leaving many people feeling exhausted, burnt out and unhappy. It doesn’t make for a productive workforce.

Work life balance – or however you define being able to do something that is not working all the time – has become one of the major preoccupations of our time.

It’s clearly not just an issue for parents or carers, but for parents it is particularly acute because you can’t just squeeze children into the corners of your life, at least not without potentially huge social consequences.

There have been enormous transformations in our lives in the last decades and those are set to change even more, and even faster, in the future. The way we work has shifted in those decades, mainly driven by technology, and there are a lot more women with children working, but the fundamental structure of work remains the same – the path to career success is based on full-time [let’s call it all the time] working.

The old system has evolved entirely without children in mind. In almost every field the model to career success is built on presenteeism, long hours and no career breaks. In fact the long hours have only got longer, even if some of them are now worked remotely.

Yet a large percentage of today’s workforce take career breaks to have children and often face problems as a result, from discrimination to inflexible working to being sidelined because they don’t work full-time, in-the-office hours. Too many of those granted reduced hours end up effectively working full time but on less pay because their responsibilities are not reduced. Many of them end up leaving their jobs as a result, taking with them all their experience and skills as they seek to reinvent themselves. The creativity with which they do so is impressive, but they do it out of necessity.

They often fall off their chosen career path and lose earnings and status as a result. Their employer loses too, perhaps more so. You only have to read their stories, as we do every day on, to understand how much their employers are losing.

Those who run returner programmes are well aware of the talent that has been wasted. Many work in industries where skills shortage is a major issue.

Shared Parental Leave has been much in the news in recent years. In the beginning there was a lot of interest and enthusiasm for the policy which allows parents to share leave in the first year after their child is born. The idea was that if parents shared that first year they might share the childcare more equally in later years. Yet take-up has been very low. There are many reasons for this, but one big one is that dads are worried about the impact on their career. They have seen what career breaks have done to women’s careers and earnings. They have also seen the impact of part-time work which often follows a career break as women continue with the main carer role. It makes no sense for both parents’ careers to suffer.

Yet this just perpetuates the cycle. It also feeds the gender pay gap because it makes it more difficult for women to get promoted. It is not good for men or women: it reinforces gender stereotypes and pushes parents apart with mums feeling sidelined and undervalued at work and dads feeling overworked and unable to get off the treadmill.

There are, of course, employers who offer flexible career pathways, but too many mums still find themselves unable to move up the ladder or move to a different employer because so few senior roles are advertised as open to flexible working.

How many employers have lost talented workers as a result? Many are voting with their feet and setting up on their own, sometimes taking their clients with them.

The world has changed and work needs to reflect that and ensure those who work less than full-time hours are not left behind and that those who work full time do not feel overwhelmed.

Enforcing equal rights for part-timers’s annual survey shows a big demand for flexible working and for career progression in flexible jobs. We asked people to tell us their stories and were inundated with replies. Below are some of the comments we received from women who feel their career has suffered due to working flexibly about what they feel needs to change:

Ellie had to leave the job she was in when she was pregnant as they wouldn’t let her have any flexibility and she couldn’t physically get back in time before the nursery closed. Her husband works very long hours and couldn’t do drop-offs or pick-ups. She got a four-day-a-week job, but was told she would only get promoted if she worked full time. She now works three days a week and says she earns £10,000 less than before she had children. She has received no training or development since going part time. Asked what needs to change she said: “I think that flexible workers need to be treated in exactly the same manner as full-time workers. My company gets much more than the hours that I am contracted to work as I think we go over and above to prove ourselves. I think, basically, we need to be treated in the same manner as everyone else.”**

Nicola worked in retail as a store manager. She asked for reduced hours after returning to work and gave up her management role. She was told that some training isn’t worth her doing unless she can work more hours, making it difficult for her to progress. Because her role could not be filled she was offered flexible working and returned, but found that she had to do the same amount of work in fewer hours. She now works in the care sector as it offers more flexibility.

Carol was a call centre manager. She was told when she came back off maternity leave that she couldn’t do her manager job on a part-time basis. She took another role and a pay drop and was then made redundant. Asked what needs to change, she says: “Employers need to recognise skill and experience and what that person can bring to the role and their company, rather than the hours they want to work.”

Liz was a financial manager and went down to four days after having children. However, she had to cram five days work into four so she moved job and now works in a job share. However, she and her job share partner are often left out of training offered across their grade or grouped with the grade below. Full timers at their grade attend senior leadership meetings which they are excluded from on the basis that they are part time. She feels stuck because there are so few senior flexible roles advertised, but is frustrated because she is working beneath her ability. She says: “There needs to be far more positions offered at higher levels in companies and far more acceptance of this being a new norm…we are still treated like we are the strange ones…the workplace has to adapt to new mothers’ needs in order to reduce post natal depression, money problems, childcare issues, stress disorders, childhood anxiety and poverty etc – it should be a no brainer to accommodate mums returning to work and to give equal rights to part timers. It may happen on paper, but you do not get treated the same in reality in the office – it’s very sad!”

*All names have been changed.

**The Part-Time Workers Regulations make it illegal to treat part-timers differently to full-timers in terms of pro-rata pay and holidays as well as access to training and development and promotion opportunities, but many employers don’t appear to abide by them.

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