Career

Do flexible hours for working mothers really work?

Sounds good in theory, but where do the boundaries lie?

By Christine Armstrong

In Grazia's weekly series Christine Armstrong, the author of The Mother Of All Jobs: How To Have Children, A Career And Stay Sane(ish), unpicks the myths around being a working mother and asks: is having a work/life balance an impossible dream?

I was at a conference recently when a speaker quoted an unnamed CEO saying, 'I love hiring mum-returners, I pay them for three days a week and they work for five.' And that, in a bombshell, is the point at which I despair of the term 'flexible work'.

Flexibility is of course a brilliant concept and excellent when it works. Which it can, if the time and tasks match. I often see job shares, for example, being particularly successful.

But in far too many interviews with working parents, what flexibility actually means is (as this CEO admits) is being paid for less time than it takes to do a job.

Many of us, wanting to do well and having a strong sense of responsibility, give the extra time despite not being paid for it. For a while anyway. But then some either give up and decide they may as well get paid for the time they give and go back to full-time. Others choose to stop work, if they can.

Either way, when the concept of flexibility is exploited for the benefit of the employer, we move a step further away from the goal of being able to happily combine working and caring for others.

This is Monique: "My boys are six, four and two. Before I had them, I was a PA to the CEO of a local housebuilder. George (husband) travels a lot for work and is often away for the whole week so I'm on my own a lot. When we had our first baby, I stopped working full-time and now work three days a week helping out with events, board meetings, training and other projects that don't fit neatly into other buckets.

"My boss and I get on pretty well but he's famous for shouting when things go wrong. I cope by being really calm with him. The problem is that he doesn't like my replacement because she cries when he goes for her. So he involves me in everything he is worried about. I know it's a compliment but it takes more than the three days and I get pulled into really stressful things. Recently, I helped with some lay-offs and was online all weekend with it. But I still only get paid for three days. I find the boys really hard to control…. I can't understand why it's all so damned hard."

She goes on to explain how she is often trying to manage her kids and be on work emails at the same time. It will surprise no one that this frequently explodes into crisis: like one she had at the park when the boys scattered and hid and one did a poo in the bushes and she ended up screaming and raging at them before locking herself in the toilet to cry.

"Most of the time I am embarrassed at myself, embarrassed at the way I behave with my kids and of my life generally."

My suspicion about flexibility was triggered by the number of bosses I would hear at conferences who would magnanimously say that they embraced 'flexible working'. When they explained, it turned out that what they meant was that they 'let' people leave towards the end of the day, to run home, spend three hours dealing with children and then log back online.

A woman who lives by this kind 'flexibility' describes her life like this:

"I'm seen as getting a beneficial arrangement at my office because I always have to be home for 6pm for the kids. In reality that means that I start eating my dinner and catching up on work at 10pm, just as everyone else is going to bed. It's completely normal for me to finish at 1am or later."

She goes on to explain that it is only the vast amount of money she spends on make-up that allows her to appear collected and in control at work. She would love to change jobs but feels she cannot because her employer allows her this flexibility and she doesn't think others would do the same.

The challenge here is that we have, in our lifetimes, gone from an economy based around having a family breadwinner, usually dad, out while 'mum' is at home, to an economy that expects dual earners. Not to mention a housing market that's quadrupled in value in the last 20 years.

But in the same time, we've changed how we work. In the old breadwinner model, men largely worked regular hours. Say 9am-5pm. That is not how people in professional jobs mostly work now. Many are engaged with work from the moment they wake and check their phone until when they finally charge it again at bedtime. The core working day – the office bit - has also extended, it's not unusual to leave offices at 7pm or 8pm (or later) on a regular basis because we have to deal with global demands and customers who have come to expect 24-hour responses.

Our commutes are longer too. The truth is that work is demanding more and more hours and all of us are trying to work out how to cope with that. Many of us desperately hope that flexibility is the answer. And it might be. But not in the way the word is too often used now.

What is the answer here?

Well my hunch, from all my interviews, is that what we really need may not be flexibility at all.

Just as with small children, what we might need more of are boundaries. Ways to protect ourselves from this constant invasion of work into family life: structure and limits. Start and end times. Defined edges around work. A way to hold back the relentless tide of incoming messages without losing our impact professionally. So that when we work, we focus and get paid for it. And when we stop, we do other things.

Imagine what that would do to our commutes, our working spaces, our ability to get on with having a life.

As to how we do it… that's a challenge for another article.

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