Flexible working: quality not quantity

Jul 25 2003 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Flexible hours and other ‘family friendly’ employment policies are of limited help to working mothers if their work spills over too much into their home life and they feel overloaded and under stress while at work.

The quality of working time may have as much impact on family relationships as the amount of time they spend at work, according to a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Under new rules introduced in April, parents of children under six have the right to ask their employers for flexible working practices.

Researchers at South Bank University who investigated the experiences of mothers with pre-school children working in contrasting workplaces – a large accountancy firm and hospital – found no evidence of mothers becoming more ‘work centered’ at the expense of family life.

Those who worked full-time were just as concerned to ‘be there’ for their children and their partner as those working part-time.

Apart from increasing the family income, mothers also felt their employment was helping them to meet their children’s emotional and social development.

Separate interviews with the women’s partners revealed widespread agreement that the mother’s work was having a positive impact on family relationships. Most fathers felt their children had benefited from their mothers’ work, which provided a positive role model for their children.

Some mothers, nevertheless, expressed concern that their job had a negative impact on the family particularly when they were overstretched at work, felt tired or had trouble ‘switching off’ from a bad day at work.

A number of fathers also felt uneasy about the demands placed on their partners at work and the effect that work-related stress could have on their children and their relationship with each other.

The researchers suggest that ‘family-friendly’ policies can be improved by putting more effort into reducing stress in the workplace. More attention could be paid to controlling workloads, managing the intensity of work and ensuring that goals and targets are achievable in the time available.

Tracey Reynolds, a Research Fellow and co-author of the report, said: “This was a small-scale study, but our findings do highlight how stresses in family relationships can arise as much from the quality of time spent at work by mothers as the amount of time they spend at work.

“Family-friendly workplace policies and practices may have helped some of the mothers we interviewed to modify their time schedules, but they were ineffective in helping them to deal with the stresses of paid work and the strains that they placed on family relationships.”