British employers are failing to make the most of their part-time workers, with 5.6 million part-time workers – 4 out of 5 of the UK's total – stuck in jobs where they do not use their full potential, new research has suggested.
The year-long investigation by the Equal Opportunities Commission found more than three and a half million part-time workers had higher qualifications or skills or had supervision/management roles in previous jobs, and a further two million believed they could "easily work at a higher level".
The report, Britain's Hidden Brain Drain, highlighted the damage caused by old-fashioned thinking about work.
Men ended up mostly working work full-time, and among the longest hours in the European Union, and women, more than two-fifths of whom worked part-time, ended up in low paid jobs with no prospects, said the EOC.
Women part-time workers were earning 40 per cent less per hour than men working full time – about the same pay gap as 30 years ago – and employers were failing to make best use of their considerable skills and experience.
At the same time, employers and employees faced an epidemic of work-related stress as work intensified and Britain burnt out. The UK's Department of Trade and Industry estimated that stress at work now costs the UK £3.7 billion a year, said the EOC.
The research echoes studies in the U.S where it has been found professional women who put careers on hold for family or other reasons can expect to earn 18 per cent less if they return to the workforce.
Research published in February by the New York-based Center for Work-Life Policy reported an average drop in earnings of 28 per cent for women in business and finance.
The EOC urged the government to extend the right to request flexible working to all, to halt this waste of potential and to stop the economic and human damage caused by work-related stress.
But this solution may have its own problems. A study this week by the Confederation of British Industry and recruiter Pertemps found a quarter of firms complained that family-friendly employment laws were having a negative effect, tying up managers in dealing with requests for flexible working.
Neil Wooding, Equal Opportunities Commissioner for Wales, said: "It's time for a transformation in Britain's workplaces, time for flexibility to become the norm at all levels of employment."
Targeted support also needed to be given to small businesses and more support and training made available to line managers to help them manage flexible working, he added.
Peter Firth of the Federation of Small Businesses warned: "A further extension to the existing rights for employees to request flexible working would impose additional costs on small businesses, particularly if requests were for homeworking.
"Therefore we are pleased to see that a key recommendation within the report is the proposal to provide financial assistance to small employers to help them manage and meet the initial costs of flexible working requests. This would provide much-needed support to small employers."