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Flexible work arrangements for parents an unrealistic fairytale, science confirms

It sounds like the dream – a family-friendly workplace that promotes flexible hours.

And in many ways it is. Because a new study has found the reality is vastly different.

La Trobe University spoke to more than 4000 parents from different occupations and found flexible work doesn’t ‘work’.

Working parents make up around two-fifths of the Australian workforce, but even employers with formal, family-friendly policies are failing working mothers and fathers.

In order to manage work-family responsibilities, 86% of the study participants relied on ‘catch-up’ strategies.

It also found 62% of parents received or sent family-related phone calls or emails at work, 59% worked through breaks to leave work on time, 47% used their break time to attend to family matters or errands and 42% of parents performed household-related tasks at work.

“We found these ad hoc self-directed strategies, such as performing family-related tasks at work or leaving early and catching up on work after hours, were common and often utilised alongside formal employer-provided flexible work arrangements,” said lead researcher, Dr Stacey Hokke from La Trobe’s Judith Lumley Centre

“This may be a sign that parents feel comfortable enough in their workplace to accommodate some quick family-related jobs to keep the family running during their workday, or it may indicate that despite best intentions, flexible work arrangements aren’t being provided enough, or aren’t meeting the actual needs of working parents.”

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While both parents used these strategies, researchers revealed gendered patterns.

“We know that mothers often work part-time and fathers are more likely to work long hours. Our research suggests that mothers accommodate family by compressing their workday, missing breaks and working after hours to fit everything in; while fathers have to accommodate family within long workdays by performing family-related tasks at work,” Dr Hokke said.

When analysing the relationship between employment and mental health, researchers found parents who had formal flexible work arrangements suffered from less occupational fatigue and burnout.

Working parents who relied on informal, ad-hoc had worse mental health.

How to regain the balance as a working parent?

Dr Hooke said more parents need to be aware of their entitlements.

“Under the Fair Work Act employees with caring responsibilities, which includes parents with school age children or younger, are entitled to ask for flexible work arrangements,” she said.

While parents are entitled to ask, they’re not automatically guaranteed a yes.

“Employers have a requirement to reply in 21 days. They can only refuse on reasonable business grounds, which is quite broad. It can include reasons as being too costly, other employees can’t be accommodated, it’s impractical or will result in a significant loss in productivity.

“But workplaces have a role in supporting the health and safety of employees and mental health is part of that. Parents with access to flexible work arrangements have better mental health and are more productive, so it’s in an employers best interest to be flexible.”