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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Fri 12-Dec-14 11:19:22

Guest post: 'Flexible working is essential for single parents, and we must insist on having the option'

There are 8.7 million full-time workers who want to work flexibly but aren't able to - here, Gingerbread's Octavia Holland explains why single parents are particularly affected, and calls on the government to make it a legal right for employees to request flexible working at the point of job offer

Octavia Holland

Director of Policy, Gingerbread

Posted on: Fri 12-Dec-14 11:19:22


Lead photo

'We know lots of employers are still squeamish about this.'

It feels like we've come a long way on flexible working. We're plugged into our smartphones picking up work outside office hours, looking at laptops perched on kitchen tables, and the quieter roads and buses on Fridays are testament to more people working from home one day a week. Even the Deputy Prime Minister is extolling its virtues.

But the statistics, and many parents' experiences, show there is still some way to go. Although there are 4 million people in the UK working full-time roles flexibly - whether that's compressed hours, home working or variable shifts - there are another 8.7 million full-time workers who want to work flexibly but aren't able to.

The lack of flexible working opportunities is one of the biggest barriers to work for single parents. They often have to balance being the sole carer for their children with earning enough to put food on the table, and more than half of the out-of-work single parents we surveyed earlier this year told us it's usually a lack of flexibility that stops them from applying for roles.

Single parent of two, Luci, gave up her successful career in advertising to take a job as a teaching assistant. She was overqualified, but the job's term-time hours and proximity to home and her children's schools made it a role she could balance with becoming a newly single parent. Now she only gets paid during the school terms, and struggles to afford the basics for her family.

The lack of flexible jobs is not just stopping single parents from working, it's affecting the earning capacity of those who are in work - and lower salaries and slower career progression are particularly problematic if you're the sole earner.

Single parents like Luci are taking on more junior roles because they offer, or are perceived to offer, greater flexibility. The lack of flexible jobs is not just stopping single parents from working, it's affecting the earning capacity of those who are in work - and lower salaries and slower career progression are particularly problematic if you're the sole earner.

There are clear issues for businesses here: if they fail to offer flexibility they limit the pool of people they can recruit from. What's more, talented, experienced staff risk being under-used, stuck in limbo in roles they are overqualified for, or leaving to take flexible jobs elsewhere. Business body the CBI has now warned businesses that they must take flexible working more seriously if they want to attract and keep the best staff.

That's why we're calling on the government to make it a legal right for job applicants to request flexible working from the point of job offer, not after 6 months of being in the role, as is currently the case.

We know lots of employers are still squeamish about this. They are unsure how it would work in practice and have been slow to respond to the changing nature of our working lives - but they must realise that 9-5 is becoming increasingly outdated. There is mounting evidence that flexible working helps businesses with their bottom line - half of those surveyed by the British Chamber of Commerce reported higher productivity as a result of having introduced flexible work, and in a Regus poll, nine out of ten reported that offering flexible working options had improved staff morale.

We need to show employers that it does work, and a big part of that is sharing our success stories. That's why we've made today #FlexiWorkDay. We want parents and employers to share why flexible working is important for them, and talk openly about how they've managed it, what they've learned along the way and how it can benefit everyone.

Attitudes towards flexible working are changing, but we've still got a long way to go.

By Octavia Holland

Twitter: @Gingerbread

meglet Fri 12-Dec-14 13:29:17

You're spot on. Sadly my flexible working request was turned down because they couldn't risk everyone wanting flexible hours hmm.

I really can't see a way forward TBH. We have the right to request it, but some employers are stuck in the dark ages.

winterbreeze Fri 12-Dec-14 14:30:42

I was a single mum for about ten years and was forced to stay on benefits on almost all that time because of the inflexibility of employer demands. I have a DS who is disabled and spends a lot of time out of school, so I have even more need for flexibility as I couldn't even work a school hours job. Realistically the only way for me to come off benefits was to stop being a single mum - not through work but finding a decent partner to support our household. I don't think there's a realistic route out of poverty for most single mums who aren't able to do that, for many single parents they simply end up being the working poor, being landed with expenses that they wouldn't have while on benefits but with the additional costs and stresses of working as well.

reprobatemum Fri 12-Dec-14 15:17:43

I agree with you on this - and i'm not a single parent. I wangled a day off a week at my last company, but it was through gritted teeth and eventually was made redundant. I worked harder at home than in the office - no distractions - and it meant I could keep in touch with kids school (lost property, updates , letters home etc.

But because it was a young workplace with few other parents, it was seen as basically getting a free day off. Didn't help that I was also young so didn't have the authority to stamp my feet much. The other parents were all senior men who seemed to come and go as they pleased.

SirChenjin Fri 12-Dec-14 16:25:41

I would support giving ALL parents the legal right to request flexiworking. It's going to require a massive shift in thinking from employers though - a legal right to request is miles away from a legal right to access.

Evergreenredandblue Fri 12-Dec-14 17:10:50

ALL parents to young children need this, to be fair.

BackforGood Fri 12-Dec-14 18:09:25

I am an absolute supporter of the right to flexible working where the business can sustain it but feel strongly it shouldnt only be for single parents.
All carers would benefit from it, including those caring for vulnerable adults or elderly relatives.

HeeHiles Fri 12-Dec-14 18:39:54

I was lucky in that I am able to my job as a freelance - I tried to do my job part time but it was impossible as something always landed on my desk just as I was about to leave - so in the end decided to walk away from the stress and work for myself. I now work 9am - 3pm then start again at 8pm - 10pm and I can award myself the odd morning off to attend assembly. Life is much more rewarding now and I don't feel I'm being pulled in two different directions!

Llareggub Fri 12-Dec-14 22:40:51

There's no reason why most jobs can't be done flexibly. Work is a thing, it requires outputs and so long as the outputs are what is expected it shouldn't matter where you do it.

I'm a single mother and I've been very fortunate to work in three professional, flexible jobs. I've found it fairly easy to negotiate flexibility at job offer stage.

I feel strongly that everyone should have the right to request flexibility. Restricting it to certain groups breeds resentment.

emmalou64 Fri 12-Dec-14 22:44:53

I am a single parent who is lucky enough to work for an employer who embraces flexibility and also sees the advantage of employing senior staff part-time. So many mothers I know have felt like they have to stay in roles they are unhappy in or take lesser roles once they have kids because of the lack of part time roles above a certain level. However to go hand in hand with flexible employment we need flexible childcare. My daughter starts school next year but not all our local schools offer wraparound care. On the days I work I need to have her cared for from 8 until 6. For me the extra stress and higher expense of a childminder is unacceptable. I wrote to the head of one of the schools to ask of they plan to introduce wraparound care and he said it wasn't a priority which I find astounding. I live in an affluent area so maybe they think most parents around here can afford childminders or nannies! The reality is that single or not most parents work and both employers and schools should move with the times and accept this reality.

Llareggub Fri 12-Dec-14 22:52:28

Our after school club finishes at 5.30, which makes life very difficult. I'm quite glad it finishes then however because it makes my 5pm finish non-negotiable and 8-5.30 is long enough for my children.

Micah Sat 13-Dec-14 07:53:30

Flexible working should be open to everyone. Not just parents, single parents, or any other section of society.


SpaghettiMeatballs Sat 13-Dec-14 08:14:49

Micah that is how it is done at my work and it means there is no resentment from staff without young children and parents also share the work of covering the odd bits of work that are still exclusively office based.

It's saved the business a fortune. We all hot desk now and have reduced the estate by 30% already by everyone doing some work at home and starting and finishing at different times.

ocelot41 Sat 13-Dec-14 09:38:46

I agree. I have two friends who are single parents and whose former partners contribute nothing financially, nor do they do any childcare (with related expenses like food). It is a massive, massive burden and although both women are amazingly resourceful, it is obviously a struggle.

Their options seem to be a/ take aa much less high-powered, p/t job and struggle even more financially ( to the point of getting into significant debt) or b/ put their (still very little) children into childcare for long, long hours. What an impossible, stupid choice to make when working from home 2-3 days a week would make life so much more manageable.Plus employers who treat their employees well, get rewarded tenfold by employee loyalty and goodwill. What's not to go for?

Micah Sat 13-Dec-14 10:02:28

It's not just single parents though ocelot.

We're on a low income. A second income would be amazing but where do I get a job where my kids don't have to be in wraparound care from 7am to 6 pm? That isn't minimum wage dinner lady or something that I don't have a hope in hell of getting because I'm overqualified. Competition for those jobs at fierce and if you have a degree you're not even considered.

Add to that my eldest has additional needs so after school club isn't actually an option.

So why should a single parent be offered a flexible position in preference to someone in my position? Or someone with an elderly relative or next door neighbour they help out. Or someone who volunteers outside work, or someone with a long term illness or disability that can't work full time 9-5.

Plus the more "normal" flexible working becomes, and the more employers offer it, the more people can choose to work flexibly.

ocelot41 Sat 13-Dec-14 10:10:27

Point taken Micah. I have a DH and am very blessed with us both having groovy, progressive employers willing to grant us both flexible working hours. It makes such a massive difference. My heart just goes out to friends of mine who are SP because it just seems so, so harsh that they have to deal with all the work, all the pressure, all the expense on their own every time. It looks beyond tough.

MinceSpy Sat 13-Dec-14 10:46:14

All working people should have access to flexible working. Single parents aren't more entitled than any one else.

IfNotNowThenWhen Sat 13-Dec-14 13:24:25

Hmm. I think the OP is just pointing out that it's particularly hard for lone parents, not that others shouldn't get flexible working. Given the battering we take from politicians and the media for supposedly not working, or raising feral fatherless children, some kind of focus on ways to make life easier for lone parents would be nice, without every jumping up and sayang how its just as hard for them.

SirChenjin Sat 13-Dec-14 13:47:54

It depends on the single parent's circumstances. I know some with a fantastic support network around them with few, if any problems with childcare etc - it's not fair to generalise and create division.

Boomtownsurprise Sat 13-Dec-14 14:16:12

I really dislike this article. It's badly written. It's badly thought out and frankly just sounds like a bitch moan rather than a serious proposition thus putting readers backs up than getting them on side.

As others say flexibility needs to be thought about by employers for all staff. All employees could benefit. All employers can too. Significantly. That's good for business and good for staff. Just takes a bit of thought.

IfNotNowThenWhen Sat 13-Dec-14 16:21:58

Well, yes, sirchenjin, so do I, in fact I probably look liklike I have a fantastic support network from the outside. It takes work to build it up though, and what you see from the outside may not always reflect the reality.

Mehitabel6 Sat 13-Dec-14 16:23:13

It just isn't feasible for a lot of jobs- teachers couldn't for a start.

juneau Sat 13-Dec-14 16:31:35

ALL parents to young children need this, to be fair.

I agree. I'm not a single parent, but I have a DH who works long and unpredictable hours and who travels for business for up to a week at a time, so my life isn't all that different to many single parents in that I have to do all school drop offs and pick ups and cannot rely on my DH being around if the DC were ill. I think though, that in the spirit of fairness, this should be offered to everyone, not just parents. If I was working FT still with no DC I'd love to be able to pick the hours I worked and possibly work from home one day a week so I could avoid the misery of commuting. This doesn't have to be a parents/non-parents issue - I think EVERYONE deserves a better work/life balance.

SirChenjin Sat 13-Dec-14 16:57:31

It may not reflect the reality - or it may. It does reflect reality in the cases I'm thinking of - one, for example, lives with her parents who do the school run, don't charge her rent, pick her up from work, arrange their work patterns with her to cover holidays etc etc.

I'm fully aware that this is certainly not the case for every single parent - but I'm equally aware that having a partner does not mean that you don't face exactly the same problems that the OP describes. That's why I want flexiworking for ALL parents.

SirChenjin Sat 13-Dec-14 16:58:10

Should have added - flexiworking when the role allows.

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