Working mum stories: the terrible toll of inflexible workplaces

Respondents to workingmums.co.uk’s annual survey highlight the impact on their career progression and mental health of a lack of flexible working.

Bullying

 

Workingmums.co.uk’s annual survey shows 80% of working mums feel stuck in the job they are in because they don’t think they will be able to find a new one with the same degree of flexibility they now have, while 57% say their career has not progressed since they have had children. We spoke to a range of different working mums whose stories highlight the terrible waste of potential that results from inflexible work structures.

Sonia used to be an HR manager for a PLC company with a turnover of £450 million, looking after over 1,000 employees. She loved the job and was good at it. During her recent maternity leave, she asked for some flexibility – to reduce to a four-day week, a nine-day fortnight or a compressed week. She was told managers could not have flexible working. She was offered a lesser role with less pay and status. She chose to leave because she felt it was better for her professional reputation to leave than to take a lesser job in the same organisation. She now works for a charity on £20k less, but has more flexibility.

She now works three days a week and says: “I felt better entering a new company at a lower level rather than my colleagues seeing me take a step back.”  She is keen to progress to either HR director level or become a self-employed consultant, but feels stuck and is worried it will be hard to get back on the career path she was on. She says: “I was really disappointed that I had to choose between career and home life. Childcare is also a massive problem. Some days, my meetings run over and I think it is still frowned upon to leave at your contracted time because you have to get to a nursery or incur late fees.  I have to consider this when I schedule meetings, but I would still say I end up leaving late most days and doing extra outside of my hours.”

She would like to see more flexible, affordable childcare as well as employers being open to a wider range of options for flexible working. She says: “A dynamic shift away from measuring output in terms of how many hours you were on site, to what did you achieve in the time you had. I know plenty of people who work full time but don’t do anywhere near as much as I do, or my other mum colleagues.”

She adds that she would like to see a fundamental shift away from “fast capitalism” and the drive to earn as much as possible as quickly as possible which means everything is about the bottom line.

She says: “Businesses need to realise that working parents are a massive pool of talent with so many transferable skills which could be of benefit to them and the Government needs to support where it can.”

Brick wall

Helen is a publications manager and has two very young children. She says she came up against “a brick wall” when trying to negotiate flexibility in her original job, but her employer created a role on reduced hours for her. She is keen to progress her career, but feels ‘stuck’ and that “there is a perception (usually from senior workers and other full-time workers) that a part-time/flexible worker or job sharer isn’t able to fulfill roles in areas where the job can’t be divided obviously into different sections”.

Anjali is a cafe assistant in Sainsbury’s and has a four-year-old daughter. She works three days a week, having worked full time before in another job. She left because of the stress and lack of understanding about flexible working. She says: “Business needs always come first. Women have two choices, ignore their career and work part time or work full time and never see their children.” She says the only flexible jobs in her area are minimum wage part-time jobs. She would like to see better training for management from HR about the law regarding flexible working, subsidised childcare from the age of two, mentoring programmes in the workplace to reintroduce mothers back into the workforce and more women at the top who have a more supportive attitude.

Impact on mental health

Tina is a teacher in middle management with two children aged two and six.  With her first child, conceived through IVF, she requested to drop a day, but had no support from her boss despite her knowing of Tina’s struggles to get pregnant. That treatment was very hurtful, says Tina, and has affected how she feels about her boss. Other teachers work part time.  After a long struggle, including being “dragged through an appeal process”, she has had part-time hours agreed. The experience has left her feeling unvalued and has affected her motivation and made her very reluctant to agree to any requests for her to be more flexible about her hours. She says “management have no care for me or my family”.  She adds: “My lack of progression has had a terrible effect on my mental health; I feel absolutely useless. I’m sat in meetings with a wealth of experience having to listen to others who are either young so don’t have kids or older so their kids are older. It really does make me feel terrible about myself. I should have progressed further prior to having my kids but hindsight is a wonderful thing. My poor self worth impacts my home life too.”

She says: “There needs to be more part-time jobs available with professional potential and there needs to be more understanding regarding time off for appointments/your own kids’ school activities…We shouldn’t have to choose between work/ progression and our own children!!”

Jess works in marketing at a university. She has one toddler and works flexibly in the same job she had before maternity leave. However, she has had some responsibilities taken off her which she thinks is unfair and will affect her promotion chances. She has looked to change jobs, but there are few flexible jobs available. She says: “I am bored in my role. People around me moan and say they will leave, but they don’t have kids so it drags me down and I know I can’t really leave. I try to think of the bigger picture. I am still very appreciated at my work. Also they have bent over backwards to be accommodating with my flexible working.”

She would like to see more homeworking for everyone so homeworkers don’t feel self conscious, having to constantly show they are not slacking.

Maria used to work as a English as a Second Language teacher/tutor, but is now a carer. She has a two year old. She says she had to change career path entirely to get a flexible job and that her current jobs pays less than teaching. She used to teach through an agency, but could not get guaranteed regular work, yet still had to pay for childcare. She fears that the longer she stays out of teaching, the harder it will be to go back. She would like to see much more priority given to the provision of affordable childcare.

More trust

Ellie  is a social media manager. Her children are aged six and seven and she changed job after they were born, having been an account manager for a creative agency before. She reduced her hours after her first child was born, but was unable to negotiate part-time hours once the second was born. She wants to progress her career and has thought about moving jobs again.

She says lack of confidence is holding her back and a feeling that any job with progression demands full-time hours, a commute and not being there for her children. She has asked about flexibility in job interviews, but none offer the flexibility she now has. She says: “I feel very flat about work at the moment. There is no career progression within my current employer and I have had no career development since before I had children.”

Asked what needs to change, Ellie says: “Trust. A working parent will give you their all whilst they work for you. Ultimately, they are working to provide for their families. There has to be acceptance that employees have more in their life than work and if you allow them to have a life, give them the flexibility to deliver their work and support to do so then only good can come from it. Don’t give up on someone because they have a family or dependant.”

*All names have been changed for the sake of anonymity.



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