Is there a flexibility stigma in the workplace?

Is there a flexibility stigma in the workplace?
6.11.19

According to the recent National Working Families Report over 60% of parents and carers say the most challenging issue is looking after their physical and mental wellbeing.

UNSW Canberra academic, Dr Sue Williamson, said that with workplaces placing a greater emphasis on employee wellbeing, this is an important finding.

“Last week the Productivity Commission released a report showing that the cost of mental ill-health and suicide could be as much as $50 billion a year,” she said.

Dr Williamson and her colleagues at UNSW Canberra have conducted research into flexible working arrangements which she says supports some of the findings in the report.

“Flexible working arrangements are key to enabling parents and carers to reconcile work and caring commitments, but our research shows that there is still a lack of role models working flexibly at the senior manager level; and men are still often reluctant to ask for flexible working arrangements.

“The report identifies a ‘flexibility stigma’ – we found a similar phenomena, which our research participants identified as ‘flexism’,” she said. This term refers to indirect discrimination and biases against those working flexibly.

Is the answer all about work/life balance?

“Employees working part-time experienced fewer career opportunities than those who worked full-time. This issue is pervasive and has been known for decades – yet it persists. Organisations tend to adopt a ‘fix the woman’ approach, which only serves to entrench current gendered roles within organisations. A systemic approach is needed – one that looks at human resource processes and structures and organisational cultures.

“It remains crucial for workplaces to continue to talk about work/life balance – although the terminology has changed to ‘reconciling’ or ‘integrating’ work and caring commitments,” Dr Williamson said. 

“Many workplaces enabled employees to work flexibly, however, our research shows that while managers may be committed to this, a policy/implementation gap remains. Managers have requested they be given more training, and more guidance on how to support those who work flexibly.”

Dr Williamson states that middle managers are the lynchpin between senior managers and employees and are essential in facilitating flexible work, with research just starting to reflect this importance.

Are we heading to a future where all workplaces will be flexible, and is this is realistic vision?

“Many organisations are introducing ‘all roles flex’, which is a fantastic initiative. It means that jobs should be flexible by default, and if they can’t be done flexibly, barriers need to be identified and, if possible, removed.

“It will always be difficult to make some jobs flexible, e.g. for those in customer service positions, but here, a broader conception of flexible work can be adopted. This means for example, that those employees be able to access flexible working through more flexible rosters and improved workforce planning,” she said.

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