Taking the stigma out of flexible work


Prue talks about how important it is for workplaces to normalise and encourage flexible working arrangements.

There is a booming industry in Australia and other developed countries dedicated solely to helping employees – overwhelmingly women – to strike the balance between work and family through helping them access flexible work. As Anne-Marie Slaughter points out in her recent book, Unfinished Business, in 2014 both Arianna Huffington and Brigid Schulte wrote a bestselling book about stressed out employees and how to strike the balance.

For large Australian businesses, flexibility is very much seen as the Holy Grail in terms of enabling employees to meet all the demands put on them by work and family. All roles flex is the new black. And I can absolutely speak from experience: having access to flexible work makes a big difference. Our days are structured to optimise the 24 hours in a day: family, work, exercise, and, as much as you can with 3 children under 6, sleep. But we also run our own business. Which is not a dissimilar position to those holding leadership positions in Corporate Australia. We have the autonomy to access flexible work in a model that suits us.

The Flexible Work Stigma

Employees, on the other hand, are less likely to have the autonomy to adopt informal flexible work practices. They are also far more likely to experience the flexibility stigma; a stigma that ensures that those who request to work flexibly are viewed as not being as committed as those who don’t; a stigma that prevents the majority of carers – primarily women – from being promoted to senior roles; a stigma that sees the 30% of women opt out of the workforce either while pregnant or after taking parental leave. The stigma also applies to older employees, with the Australian Human Rights Commission finding that over a quarter (27%) of Australians aged 50 years and over reported they had experienced some form of age discrimination in the previous 2 years. Alarmingly, when managers were asked if they factored age into their decision making, a third responded that they did, with the most commonly experienced forms of age discrimination related to limiting employment, promotion or training opportunities, and perceptions that older people have outdated skills, or were too slow to learn new things. It speaks volumes about the stereotypes we are expected to conform to, that men’s requests for flexibility are more likely to be declined than women’s. Indeed one study found 59% of working fathers would like to work part time provided they could also have a meaningful career. As Anne-Marie Slaughter says: To be stigmatised means to be singled out, shamed, and discriminated against for some trait or failing. Why should stigma based on taking advantage of company policy to care for loved ones be any different? While the majority of those subjected to discrimination do not make a complaint, of the 22,000 complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission each year, two thirds are in the context of business and employment.

Flexible Work and Combatting Poverty

But it’s the impact of discrimination on job accessibility we ought to be most concerned about, as it contributes directly and significantly to poverty. In Australia, it is estimated that 1 in 7 Australians, including 1 in 6 children and 1 in 3 adults over the age of 60 live below the international poverty line. According to President Triggs, If people do not have access to employment then they are at serious risk of falling below that poverty line. The most at risk groups are women, children, older people and sole parents; the same groups that are not welcome in our workplaces. They are at risk because they are also often the most poorly paid. Corporate Australia therefore has an enormous opportunity to reduce the number of Australians living in poverty. Flexibility does have a significant role to play, but cultural perceptions of the availability, use and benefits of flexibility need to change. And of course, just by doings so will see workplaces profit from more engaged and productive employees. So many times we’ve been asked to draft into flexible work policies and procedures a “minimum performance” requirement: employees need to meet certain criteria before being entitled to request flexibility. In my experience, we ought to be flipping this question on its head, instead asking of those who are under performing – “do you need some flexibility?” Flexibility cannot mean disposable. And he who works longest does NOT work best. But addressing discriminatory attitudes and behaviours may just mean taking responsibility for the fact that the pathway out of poverty for employees you manage, could be in your hands. Leaders need to role model that the key to normalising flexibility is understanding the difference it makes to an individual’s capacity to accommodate all of the demands made of them, and that for most, it is not a lifestyle choice. Flexibility can deliver life changing benefits for those groups most at risk of falling below the poverty line. Ask not what your employees can do for you, but what you can do for your employees, empowering each and every one to realise both their full potential AND fulfil their responsibilities to care for those who need them.