Flexible working for parents is great. But child-free people need it, too

Fresh rallying calls for greater equality and support for mothers in the workplace are made in two recent books: Heading Home: Motherhood, Work, and the Failed Promise of Equality and Making Motherhood Work: How Women Manage Careers and Caregiving.

In the latter, the sociologist Caitlyn Collins casts her net wide to explore how work and family tensions are exacerbated by both a long-hours culture and what she sees as society’s dismissive attitudes towards care-giving. Stressed, exhausted and unappreciated mothers in Italy and the US share anecdotes that contrast markedly with those of their Swedish counterparts. In Sweden, more progressive social policies mean that fathers take 90 days of paternity leave and play a bigger role in childcare, bringing the nirvana of work-life balance closer to reality. This approach, Collins argues, should be more widely embraced.

No one would quibble with these sentiments or the battle cry for business to take more responsibility for its employees. Yet this is all familiar territory in a debate that could be greatly enriched by a new perspective.

What about child-free workers? Are they not just as disadvantaged by regressive working policies or indeed any less immune to the trivialisation of their lifestyle choices and office double standards?

The answer is yes, and I speak from experience; one that over the years has flared up with particular force whenever I have wanted to work more flexibly. Indeed, the seemingly simple request to work from home occasionally has at times been a torturous and demeaning exercise that has revealed the widely held assumption that without kids, there’s little life to balance.

“What do you want flexible working for anyway?” asked one boss incredulously, unable to fathom my motives. The inflexion didn’t go unnoticed.

Actually, at the time, with stress-induced insomnia, any reprieve from the long-hours office culture would have been transformative for both my wellbeing and productivity. Yet even after sharing the most personal of medical information, my request was denied. I remained in situ, heart pounding and head spinning.

And this was far from an isolated incident. I’ve worked in newsrooms, for global charities, as part of a four-strong agency team and even in a failing school, yet for all the different quirks, cultures and formalities, keeping me tethered to the desk has been the common dominator.

“You’re OK manning the fort aren’t you, Caroline?” my editor would ask/tell me – not really waiting for a reply and sealing my fate to work yet another Easter week. The expectation that I would be available to attend evening and weekend events, often arising from last-minute requests, came with the matter-of-fact assumption that I had no other commitments.

The leeway given to working parents is an understandable and accepted convention, but whether this courtesy is extended to all employees too often hinges on the whim of a manager. This discrepancy ignores the many other valid reasons why workers should be cut a little slack beyond childcare. Notably, dependants come in different forms, be that a sick relative, a beloved pet or ageing parent. Then there are mental-health issues, which, being unpredictable and sometimes debilitating, pose a challenge to the rigidity of corporate life.

This sense that your concerns and wellbeing are under the radar is echoed by a broader invisibility in the cultural narrative. Yet childless workers do need to be part of the conversation. While discrepancies and inconsistencies prevail, where one person’s flexible working comes at the expense of another picking up the slack, where people’s needs are pitted against each other in a warped battle to be most deserving, we will still have divisions and toxicity that ultimately benefit no one. Indeed, if the approach to flexible working had been less selective from the outset, we might by now be further down the line in seeing the office-bound nine to five for the anachronism it undoubtedly is, and all be much closer to something far more progressive.

The occasions I have been able to work flexibly have been hugely beneficial to my mental wellbeing, giving me a psychological boost simply by having more control over my agenda and life. The opportunity to exercise at more convenient times, to be outside getting the endorphins flowing, has had a hugely positive effect on my mood in a way that being holed up in an office for eight hours with its politics and white noise did not. Furthermore, away from the perpetual soundtrack of gossip and other people’s calls, I’ve been infinitely more productive.

Professor Sharon Clarke and Dr Lynn Holdsworth of Alliance Manchester Business School find a direct correlation between flexible working and reduced occupational stress. In their 2017 report Flexibility in the Workplace: Implications of flexible work arrangements for individuals, teams and organisations, they discover that the upshot is more motivated, committed and productive staff and enhanced organisational effectiveness.

Interestingly it comes with another key recommendation; to avoid perceptions of unfairness, reduced team morale and disruption to working relationships, it must be implemented consistently.