Staying energised through blurred lines

28/03/2018

“Workplace policies have not kept up with the social changes in people’s everyday lives…”

This is just one conclusion from a recent House of Commons Report on working fathers, and the extent to which people have taken up the government initiative of shared parental leave. It’s indicative of changing times – and how the world of work is struggling to keep up.

For our latest blog we’ll assess the current pressures on working families, explore flexible working as one solution, and ways to physically and mentally cope with modern working life.

In January, Personnel Today reported on the findings of the Modern Families Index 2018. The index, co-produced by work-life balance charity Working Families and Bright Horizons Family Solutions, used survey data from almost 3000 working parents and carers, two thirds of whom class themselves as ‘couple households’ with over 70% of those having both parents working full time.

The index reveals two interesting issues in particular;

Firstly, parents are working well in excess of their contracted hours;
40% of those parents already working full-time are putting in extra hours, up to the equivalent of one working day per week in some cases.
These additional hours are being attributed to both workload and organisational culture.
A third of parents said ‘they felt burnt out all or most of the time’, over half of whom see work as the main cause.

Secondly, parents are consequently having to make a trade-off (the ‘parenthood penalty’ as it’s described). This plays out as follows;
One in five parents have stalled their career,
1 in 10 have refused a new job or career progression because of the potential impact on work-life balance.

These findings led to a call for “human-sized jobs” from Sarah Jackson, CEO of Working Families. “Parents are responding to the pressures on them by deliberately stalling and downshifting their careers. Our findings should be a wake-up call.”

Only this last week, the BBC reported that working fathers are ‘losing out’, fearing they’ll jeopardise careers by taking advantage of shared parental leave rights introduced in 2015. It’s not just employers being asked to take note. In their ‘Fathers & the Workplace’ Report (the basis for the BBC online article), the House of Commons Women & Equalities Committee conclude that the government still has some distance to go to convert good intentions into workplace reality;

‘The right to request flexible working has not created the necessary cultural change in the workplace and the Government itself told us that its shared parental leave policy… will not meet its objective for most fathers.’

Flexible working is one way to balance work and home pressures. But, as Vana Resourcing noted in their Half Year assessment, there is a trend of tension between flexible working and physical presence – particularly where senior hires are being asked to immerse themselves in organisations and spend time with executive level managers and teams across multi-site operations.

So, from their work with candidates, is Vana seeing evidence of the ‘parenthood penalty’? Quite possibly according to Vana Resourcing Co-Director, Jo White. “Achieving a form of work life balance can be something of a ‘holy grail’ for many candidates we support – particularly parents who are returning to work following a career break or those juggling family commitments. I’d certainly concur with the statistic that 1 in 5 have stalled their careers to achieve this.

Therefore, when a candidate weighs up career aspirations, the motivation to change employer and the rewards on offer, the ability to work flexibly/remotely is seen as a huge benefit – and any employer that makes this intrinsic to their culture leads the way. A recent HSBC report on flexible working and remote working practices shows that 89% claim remote working as their number one incentive to boost productivity. In this case ‘flexible working practices’ doesn’t actually mean ‘less working’ but instead a better engaged, more productive workforce.”

For all its benefits though, the irony of flexible working as a means to tackle the work-life tightrope walk has been to blur the lines that define when we’re in or out of ‘the office’. How then to adapt to working life in an age where communication technology has also made work – and the workplace – an amorphous concept?

For some it’s simply about staying energised.

Last November Forbes interviewed 12 women leaders on how they achieved levels of physical and mental energy to help them cope with the demands that their senior positions impose. From a dozen different takes on staying energised, three common factors emerged; exercise/physical activity, doing something that makes you happy and fulfilled and staying hydrated. It would be easy to dismiss this as relevant only to the stratosphere of corporate America. But, although everyone has routines personal to them and tailored to fit their circumstances, some of the advice offered still resonates. For example;

‘Don’t take yourself too seriously and always remember the “why” and the “who” for which you are working.’

‘Enjoy what you do! Feel excited about it. Surround yourself with other excited and interested people. And try not to waste energy dwelling over mistakes or being too self-critical.’

We concluded our most recent blog by talking about personal goals outside work for 2018. This was a reflection of how activities and interests are not just the things we love doing – but they also have the effect of counterbalancing the pressures of work and putting them into context.

Vana Resourcing co-director, Debbie Flowers, explains the scenario. “As business owners we know first-hand the blurring of home and work life. In our profession, we’re regularly talking to clients and candidates outside of core business hours.

We established Vana 14 years ago and created a truly flexible culture. This isn’t about working from home one day a week; it’s effectively managing our time across the week to fulfil business and family needs, live healthily and remain energised. Experience has taught us how to maintain a balance. It’s not perfect but then I’m not sure I’ve met anyone who has achieved that! Our work timetable can be intense but we’re adept at planning and delivery, and can remain agile to ensure we’re present for our little people at a variety of important events, and spin the household management in the background!

I often read articles about working parents’ guilt over striving to try and strike the right balance. I think it’s important we demonstrate to our children a strong work ethic, and it’s part of who I am. My twins are now 11 and they’ve told me they’re proud of their Mum so it doesn’t get better than that.

I can also identify with those perspectives on staying energised. For me, regular yoga is incredibly important to help keep a sense of balance, I love getting down to the sea when I can, eat healthily and stay hydrated. Jo and I also laugh a lot. It’s a great way to keep sane and remind ourselves, when things can get a bit stressful, why we do what we do.”

In conclusion, social and structural change aided by the digital revolution has reshaped the workplace. This has presented opportunities – but also blurred the boundary between home and work, putting working parents under considerable pressure as they seek to do both justice. It’s clear from research that such pressures are taking their toll and forcing people to make radical choices about career progression.

Flexible work can act like a pressure valve for this situation. However, it seems that the promised land of a universal flexible working culture is some way off and for now employers and the talent they seek try to achieve a balancing act of being both flexible and present.

Staying energised – and finding ways to counterbalance the demands of working life – is at least one way of taking steps to deal with the modern age. Even if we can’t take the pressure away, we can find and accentuate the positive as a means to take back some control of who we are.

(Image Credits: Swaraj Tiwari, Linda Xu)