Flexible working can lead people to work longer and harder, according to new book

flexible working and long hoursFlexible working has become the norm for many workers since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but it can actually lead many to work longer and harder, with work encroaching on family life. A new book by Professor Heejung Chung from the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research explores how workers’ wellbeing and gender equality may in fact be jeopardised by flexible work, rather than providing a better work-life balance.

Professor Chung argues that ‘freedom’ to control when and where to work results in workers working harder and longer in our current work-life balance culture, where working long hours beyond contracted time is seen as the ‘ideal productive worker’. Norms around gender roles and intensive parenting cultures pushes women to exploit themselves at home by increasing time spent on childcare and housework.

Yet, in her book titled The Flexibility Paradox: Why flexible working leads to (self-) exploitation (Policy Press), Professor Chung suggests there is a solution. Changes in the way that we think about work, work-life balance and gender roles can help shape the outcomes of new working cultures. She said: ‘Flexible working is just an amplifier of whatever problems we have in our societal norms. Thus, what we need is to reflect on our work culture and gender norms when introducing flexible working, if we want flexible working to result in better work-life balance for workers and achieve gender equality.’

Governments should consider providing workers with stronger rights to flexible work, as well as protection against discrimination which can help tackle the flexibility stigma, according to Professor Chung. Laws such as the right to disconnect can help ensure that flexible working does not lead to encroachment of private time and that the rise of flexible working does not lead to a working culture where workers are expected to work all the time and everywhere.

Professor Chung adds: ‘Introducing policies that can help fathers be more involved in childcare and housework, such as ear-marked well-paid paternity leaves, can also help shape our norms around gender roles so that flexible working does not increase gender inequalities at home or in the workplace. This can help to address wider EDI issues. Employers should also try to tackle the ‘always on’ culture by communicating to workers that resting and having physical and mental detachment away from work actually enhances productivity.’