Two in five working parents feel compelled to put in extra hours at home

Campaigners call for flexible roles to be destigmatised, as survey finds ‘always on’ cultures undermine the ability to achieve work-life balance

‘Always on’ cultures are undermining the ability of working parents to balance work and home life, according to a survey of working families in the UK.

The 2020 Modern Families Index by Working Families and Bright Horizons, which surveyed 3,090 working parents, found many struggled to cope with the demands of home and work, despite the rise of flexible working policies and greater awareness among businesses of the importance of work-life balance. 

While the majority (55 per cent) of working parents reported being allowed to work from home and flexibly, 48 per cent said that this actually increased their workload. As a result, 44 per cent felt compelled to work from home during evenings.

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At the end of December the Queen’s speech announced a move from the government to consult on ensuring flexible working by default unless employers have a good reason not to agree. 

Jane van Zyl, CEO of Working Families, said her organisation’s research made it clear more jobs needed to be “human sized”, and that more and better quality flexible working would support this. 

“Employers that design roles that can be done in their contracted hours and encourage ‘switching off’ will feel the benefit of happier, healthier workers,” van Zyl said. “Requiring employers to be proactive about offering flexible and part-time roles could be a catalyst for better job design.”

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The survey found three in five parents work extra hours to cope with increased workloads, and half (52 per cent) of those said it is part of their organisation’s culture.

Meanwhile, 47 per cent of respondents said technology had blurred the boundaries between work and home. Only a quarter said technology did not affect their work-life balance. 

This always-on culture has a detrimental impact on employees, with almost three-quarters (72 per cent) of parents working outside of contracted hours citing increased stress. 

Parents also said increased work negatively affected their relationships with partners and children. More than half (54 per cent) of parents who said they stayed in ‘work mode’ at home said this led to arguments with their children, while 57 per cent said it contributed to disputes with partners. 

Joeli Brearley, founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said flexible working policies were "not worth the paper they are written on" unless supported by culture change.

"What these figures really show is that flexible working still has an image problem. It's still viewed as a diluted form of the traditional work model rather than an evolution of it," Brearley said. "There is a stigma attached to flexible working that implies that those who take it up aren't as committed to their jobs, and so you end up with parents working extra hours for free to prove that commitment."

The Working Families report found parents remained optimistic when discussing family-related issues with their employers, however. More than half (55 per cent) of working parents felt confident talking about family issues with their employer, up from 47 per cent in 2015. A similar number (53 per cent) felt their line manager cared about their work-life balance. 

Dr Jill Miller, senior diversity and inclusion adviser at the CIPD, told People Management the research highlights the need for employers to look closely at job design to ensure people are given a reasonable workload for their allocated working hours.

“It’s also important for employers to offer all employees flexible working arrangements, so they can better juggle work and caring and other commitments,” Miller said. “We want to see all employees using the ‘happy to talk flexible working’ tagline in their recruitment and improve transparency of their flexible working policies by publishing these on their websites.”

Employers should also promote their parental leave policies to ensure employees know their entitlement and are encouraged to take it, which could help deliver better distribution of caring responsibilities, she added.

Similarly, the Working Families report recommended employers ensure staff, particularly ‘sandwich generation’ employees, are aware of policies supporting carers and any eldercare support they offer as an employer. 

The report also suggested employers better manage the use of technology outside of work. This could include senior managers role modelling “switching off”, it advised.