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Why flexible working matters for working parents

By Ana Isabel Alonsagay

“Flexible work” arrangements are sought after by plenty – with its ability to boost workplace morale, satisfaction, and retention rates. Businesses save on tens of thousands of dollars in worker turnover, while employees are better able to fit their time around work and life commitments.

The format is especially favoured by nearly half (44%) of Australian working parents, helping them  juggle the demands of parenthood – while still building on their career. This, among other factors such as childcare support and reduced job pressure, keep first-time parents fulfilled in their goals as they ease their way back into the workplace.

Despite research showing a wide variety of possible methods in implementing successful flexi-work practices (over 300, in fact - including term-time working, tapered working, and job shares), some companies still turn a blind eye to flexible working; sticking to their rigid 9-5 ways.

SkillsTalk explore the importance of flexible work among working parents – and how companies can embrace this need for change.

A growing parental concern.

asian man working from home with baby son

For years, working parents have faced the stigma of requesting leave or flexible arrangements – with many having their work ethics questioned upon doing so.

According to the 2019 National Working Families Survey, nearly half (46%) of all Australian parents experienced this scrutiny when using family-friendly work arrangements. Some may argue that women are especially a victim of this, with Harvard Business Review terming the bias as the Maternal Wall”. 

However, when leaving flexible work options unused (or should their business provide none at all), studies show damaging effects on employees – including lower morale and mental health. The same survey states that 62% of Australia’s workers struggle in maintaining both their physical and psychological health when failing to balance work and family pressures. This not only spells out bad news for employees – but for the overall productivity of their business, as well.

Additionally, parents worry about getting “left behind” in their careers, as was the case with Fatemah Beydoun; an employee at the tech security start-up, Secure Code Warrior. After giving birth to her son, Noah, in 2017 – Beydoun shares her anxieties with ABC Australia on having to choose between being a stay-at-home mum, or fulfill her career goals by returning as full-time worker.

But mothers aren’t the only ones under employer scrutiny – fathers struggle with accessing the flexible work they deserve, too. 

The 2019 National Working Families Survey had also revealed that two-thirds of parents (64%) believed it was more acceptable for women to use family-friendly work options than men. A recent study conducted by the University of South Australia additionally found that 24.2% of the women survey were more likely to request flexibility at work, compared to 17.3% of men – despite these male workers being unhappy with their current work arrangements. 

It’s imperative to readjust our attitudes and biases towards all working parents and their need for flexible work, regardless of gender. Employers must also shift their perspectives from seeing work-family policies as a possible stunt to operations – and instead, as an investment in their workers’ wellbeing. The faster they do, the quicker these working parents will be in resuming their workplace responsibilities.

The benefits of flexible work arrangements.

In an Indeed survey of 2,000 Australian working parents, those with flexible work arrangements saw themselves staying at their current company for seven years. Among those without flexible work options – 43% were willing to take a pay cut if it meant more freedom and flexibility in their schedule.

Additionally, further studies show an overall increase in employee motivation, productivity, and engagement. Businesses can thus reap the financial benefits of lower absenteeism and greater retention rates; Mercy Health, a not-for-profit aged and healthcare provider, was able to save $23 million a year from having flexible work arrangements in place. 

As mentioned, such options also aid in the wellbeing of working parents. With all the struggles of parenthood, flexible work fortunately results in reduced “psychosocial hazards” – also known as work-related elements that lend themselves to worker stress, leading to mental or physical injuries (or both). Those lacking in flexible work privileges are left at risk of low job control, poor work relationships, remote work isolation, and varying other job-related consequences.

Of Indeed’s survey, 94% of working parents also believed that such options even had a positive impact on their overall home life. 

On a larger scale, implementing more flexible work may further help solve gender pay gap issues and overall gender equality in the workplace

In a joint study by Bain & Company and Chief Executive Women, findings revealed that 57% of women working flexibly were confident in becoming senior business leaders, with 53% aspiring to such roles. 

Granting mothers the option of working flexibly will therefore not only aid in their mental health and productivity – but their ability to break social barriers and drive forth progress in the modern workplace.

So, how are companies implementing flexible work?

woman working from home on couch

According to Parents At Work, the “key issues” faced by employers in providing flexible work include: a lack of awareness in the various options and business benefits, a discriminative perception against parents requesting for flexible work, and bias against men being “primary carers” – while pigeonholing women into these roles.
To embrace the need for these working arrangements, the Perinatal Workplace Wellbeing Program outlines the specific steps employers can take towards change. 

The first would be identifying who their working parents are – and not just those who fall under “biological mothers” – but adoptive parents, blended families, grandparent-carers, legal guardians, same-sex families, and foster parents.

The next step would be to cultivate changes in workplace culture. This would involve encouraging staff to communicate their working needs, to use employee assistance programs, and to alleviate any feelings of anxiety or guilt. Employers should challenge and break down longstanding stigmas; helping all working parents – both mothers and fathers – get the support they need without shame. 

Finally, when implementing flexible work, employers should be aware of the varying options available

As mentioned earlier, Secure Code Warrior’s Fatemah Beydoun had the common anxiety of balancing motherhood and career demands. Fortunately, her company had a progressive “infants-at-work” policy, letting her bring her son to the workplace from two months of age. 

HSBC Australia is another leading corporation in flexible work policies, with their Senior Global Relationship Manager, Brett Jager, reaping the benefits. As a father, the company allows him to conveniently work from home, granting him more time to spend with his kids. He also makes use of compressed work hours once a week to coach his son’s soccer team. 

However, it’s important to note that parenthood (and the various demands that come with it) doesn’t stop at infancy. Later-stage working parents may still require flexible work support as they continue tending to their children’s needs.  This where it pays for employers to weigh out their options and seek new, unconventional ways of offering flexibility while maintaining business productivity.

Gone are the days of a strict 9-5

Though a familiar, tried-and-tested practice across (most) industries; it’s high time we look past  traditional timetables and highlight arrangements that promote a better work-life balance among workers.

Working parents, in particular, stand to benefit from such options. Not only do these help ease them back into the workforce (diminishing any extra downtime), these arrangements boost their confidence in parenthood, as well as their professional careers. What results are happier, healthier workers, helping you foster a far more productive and harmonious workplace.
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