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We need a shift in the mindset of employers in the UK, so that flexible working is seen as the norm, not the exception, argues Sarah Jackson

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Sarah Jackson, chief executive, Working Families

Have you ever looked at the clock and thought, ‘I need to just finish this one piece of work before I go home’? Or perhaps you’ve done some extra work in the evenings or at the weekend to make sure you stay on top of your in-tray?

Feeling like we don’t have enough hours in the day is a familiar story, but our latest research suggests that our national obsession with overwork has reached boiling point for UK parents. The Modern Families Index, published together with Bright Horizons, surveyed more than 2,700 parents.

We found that four in 10 parents working typical full-time hours are putting in extra hours, and that a third of those clocking up extra time on the job are actually working six days instead of five, every week. And the picture isn’t any better for part-time workers – a third of parents working 25 hours a week are actually working enough extra time to qualify as full-time workers.

Of course, there are basic economic arguments about the extent to which the economy is benefitting from unpaid overtime, or whether family budgets would be easier to manage if parents were paid for all this extra work. But actually, what I’m interested in is the balance of time and money for UK families. Two out of five parents told us that work prevents them from being able to say goodnight to their children often or all the time, and the same proportion said it stops them from being able to help their children with their homework.

WORK/LIFE BALANCE

Work looms large over everyday family life. So perhaps it’s not surprising that a third of parents feel burnt out all or most of the time.

And parents are taking significant action. Nearly one in five parents told us they have deliberately stalled or downshifted their careers. And one in 10 has turned down a promotion because they were concerned about the impact of a more senior role on their family life.

We have talked for many years about the ‘motherhood penalty’, whereby women’s careers are disadvantaged by having children. Indeed, those discussions are more to the fore than ever as companies prepare to meet new gender pay gap reporting obligations.

But we are concerned this is now evolving into a ‘parenthood penalty’ – both mothers and fathers are now diminishing their careers, skills and earning potential. With 11 million working parents in the UK, this is a penalty that our economy can ill afford.

WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE?

All employees with 26 weeks’ service have the right to request flexible working: a big step forward in trying to move flexibility beyond just being something for parents and carers. But the reality is this hasn’t made enough of a difference. Less than half of parents (44 per cent) in the Index felt that flexible working was a genuine option for mothers and fathers in their workplace. And those who work flexibly don’t necessarily have the control that this suggests – a quarter of flexible workers in our survey had restricted or no control over their working hours. Is this really flexibility at all?

Too often, flexibility is seen as granting a favour to employees and, even more specifically, a favour to working mothers. Because it is viewed as a concession, employers don’t feel they need to design jobs to fit flexible hours, but push the onus on the flexible worker to make the arrangement work – leading to overwork, burn-out and stunted careers. What would work better? For employers to think through what they need at the outset – the hours, times and location that they need people to be available – and to advertise jobs on this basis. We need human-sized jobs.

The Government is reviewing how flexible working is operating next year. This is a great opportunity to shift the norm so that jobs in the UK are flexible unless they, exceptionally and objectively, can’t be. The review needs to ensure that becoming a parent shouldn’t be a bad career move.

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