Home-working has opened new windows onto how people’s private and work lives intersect.
Catherine Hine FRSA argues that the debate about good work must do more to recognise organisations' role in supporting families to thrive.
The huge rise in the number of people working from home driven by Covid-19, means that many of us having remote meetings can now check out someone’s bookcase and listen – amused or not – to a child’s off-camera contribution. Meetings are interrupted so that carers, already under so much pressure before the pandemic, can fulfil their even more precarious caring responsibilities. For those home-schooling there is the added stress of juggling class time and work time. It is fascinating that it has taken a devastating pandemic to highlight how closely work, home and family interact.
Little about work today can be said to be typical. Life-time careers, nine to five working, paid overtime and annual pay rises are museum relics. Insecure working lives built on flexibility and zero hours contracts that could be described as ‘atypical’ a decade ago are now all-too typical. The economic shock of Covid-19 is forcing further changes. Many of these themes will be familiar to those who follow the RSA’s research on the Future of Work. Perhaps what is absent from the discussion so far is the idea of the worker as ‘familied’.
Hushing and tidying
For too many companies, the ‘ideal worker’ is one able to avoid family incursions into the workplace. In conversations with employees long before lockdown, I heard repeated tales of hushing and tidying. Corporate directors, teaching assistants, customer service operators, teachers, council officers and media managers; each described the pressures – explicit and implicit – they felt to hide relationships and family commitments from the workplace.
Family needs have to be left at the front door, while giving yourself over to work.
The optics of putting extra hours in and careful reading of coded messages sent by employers’ reactions to colleagues experiencing caring responsibilities, separations or funerals, are often vital to ‘get on’.
Building back better?
Has the pandemic loosened this thinking? Can we avoid penalising familied employees as we try to turn the rhetoric of building back better into reality post-pandemic?
FASTN research, supported by RSA Catalyst funding, asked a representative sample of 3,000 employees employed for over a year about their experiences. It showed that the majority of us consider ourselves familied.
When asked about a wide range of family circumstances, suggested by The Department for Work and Pensions Family Test, 70% of respondents said that their family situation had changed during the period of their current employment. Yet only 19% felt that their employers recognised this experience.
Modern families are diverse and complex but the FASTN survey found that few respondents felt their employers appreciated this. Just 15% of employees caring for and living with an older or disabled relative and almost one in four (23%) of those who are divorced or separated felt employers understood. Indeed, although nearly 10% of employees was a single parent, less than a third (29%) reported receiving a living wage and secure contract, that recognised their family commitments.
In interviews conducted before the survey, I repeatedly heard employees recount heart-breaking stories of separation and divorce. At a time when relationships were strained, emotions raw and time depleted, employees felt unable to take time away from work to invest in all-important future relationships. A combination of lack of management support, stigma and restrictive policies meant that instead, the separation of bank accounts, putting houses on the market and filing legal paperwork, filled up their time outside work.
Employers must do more to support families in life’s difficult transitions. Instead, too many actually add to the hurt and conflict that is known to compromise future life outcomes for all family members.
FASTN’s research has confirmed that employees in senior positions and with higher bargaining power were significantly more likely to report that their employer supported their family to thrive than those in less secure and lower-paid roles. It suggests that employees have low expectations of their employers, perhaps given the insecurity created by the pandemic. However, almost 70% considered a potential employer’s track record on supporting families to thrive to be an important factor when they were looking for future work. Responses were consistent between women and men.
Family as a sustainability issue
The United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development set out the definition of sustainability which now underpins Environment, Social and Governance (ESG) programmes and corporate responsibility commitments. Sustainability means meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.
Work needs a shake up. Just as organisations ignore the real cost of the Earth’s ‘natural capital’ they use, so too are the costs to families routinely unaccounted for. Good work should be enjoyed by all, do no harm and improve the quality of life for current and future generations.
Harvard neuroscientists tell us that healthy, dependable relationships wire our brains and increase our probability of attaining positive health and wellbeing outcomes. Using parents of young children as an example, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) found that as many as 35% of employee-parents report facing obstacles to their parenting because of work. In contrast, adults interviewed by the ONS during the pandemic, identified staying in touch with families and friends as the number one coping strategy, rising to 76% amongst adult carers.
The implication is that at its best, family improves the functioning and resilience of employees. Unsupportive employers failing to support families to thrive, undermine the ‘serve and return’ of successful relationship building, ultimately harming their own bottom line.
Writing in 2018, the RSA’s Matthew Taylor made a strong case for structural intervention to rebalance mutual rights and responsibilities between employers and employees. Our survey confirms the urgent need for a cultural shift toward improved understanding and support to families in the workplace.
Families are dynamic, complex and diverse. Fair workplaces must recognise this reality and offer more listening, conscious role modelling and genuine flexibility within compassionate cultures. At FASTN we aim to trigger reflection, thinking and action on how organisations can support families – of all shapes and sizes – to thrive. I would love to hear your ideas on how to #BuildBackBetter with a greater appreciation of what families do for society and for the economy. Are you in?
Catherine is CEO of FASTN, a charity which partners across the education, youth and employment sectors so that more children and adults benefit from healthy, dependable, nurturing family environments throughout their lives. She is Trustee of women’s financial resilience charity, Smallwood Trust, completed her MBA – focused on sustainability – before lockdown and, at the time of writing, was enjoying part-time home-schooling.