Flexible working: man’s new best friend?

Blog posts

15 May 2023

Astrid Allen, Research Fellow
Abbie Winton, Research Fellow (former)

Flexible work is often thought of as a way of supporting women in the workplace, but what is frequently missed is the huge role it plays in supporting men in living more balanced lives. During Mental Health Awareness Week, 15 to 21 May 2023, organisations should consider how enabling more men to work flexibly could support improved wellbeing.  

The social norm is for women to work flexibly (often part time) to fulfil caring roles. This allows more men to work full-time and often move into higher paid roles than women. However, as well as leading to inequality in the workplace, this also means men have a reduced role in family life and bear the pressure of being the main wage earner. ONS figures show that in 44 per cent of working families the man works full-time while their partner works part-time, but these roles are reversed in just 3 per cent of this group (working families where the woman works full-time while their partner works part-time).

Key drivers

Men are more reluctant to ask for flexible working because of the gendered stigma that remains attached to this way of working. Consequently, concerns about the impact that flexible working will have on job security and career progression are likely to be felt more strongly by men than they are by women. This is because we live and work in a society that expects that a woman’s career will at some point be impacted by having children and possibly fulfilling other caring roles, while it rejects the notion that men’s careers should suffer the same fate.

Counterintuitively perhaps, research has found that men are more likely than women to state that there is no reason not to work flexible hours or work from home (33 per cent versus 27 per cent). Men are more likely to be in roles where they can access homeworking arrangements (i.e. office-based roles or managerial roles within customer-facing industries such as retail or food and accommodation). However, the reality is that it is women who are more likely to make a reduction to their hours (e.g. part-time, term-time or job-sharing arrangements) or take on a disproportionate share of supervisory parenting and housework, even in situations where both parents are working from home

Providing for one’s family is still seen as part of the male role, but this pressure can have tragic consequences. Although lower proportions of men admit to having poor mental health, men continue to account for three-quarters of UK suicide deaths registered in the UK in 2021. While there is a multitude of complex reasons for suicide, the Samaritans have found that men feel under pressure to provide for their families. This is especially the case among working class men and, where they believe they are not meeting this expectation, they feel a sense of shame and defeat.

Making change happen

Society needs people to work flexibly to provide the level of care that is required by children and an ageing population. Juggling full-time work and caring responsibilities is a major challenge and excludes many from the workplace or forces them to reduce the amount of time with dependents and seek care solutions that are often unaffordable or unavailable. To ensure that we continue to strive towards equity in the provision of unpaid care work, we need to enable men to take a more influential role at home by changing societal attitudes and working practices to allow for this.

Having higher paid, senior role models (currently often men) working flexibly will pave the way for others to do the same. Men will benefit from reduced pressure to work full-time and increased opportunities to engage in family life. Women need men to work flexibly to level the playing field, remove the stigma of flexible working and create a system that supports flexible working as the norm, rather than an exception to accommodate women with caring responsibilities.  

We need to change the narrative. Flexibility can (and should) be built into all job roles – especially senior roles and those which male employees more commonly occupy. All roles should be designed and advertised as flexible from day one and the opportunity for flexibility should be available to all without the need for special dispensation.

Practical steps

Our recent gender pension gap report recommends that a variety of potential arrangements and support mechanisms should be considered, including (but not limited to): annualised hours, compressed hours, flexitime, home/hybrid working, job-sharing, part-time working, term-time working and sabbatical leave.

Practical examples of how to better support flexible working include:

  • Make flexible working a key topic to cover in line management meetings.
  • Ensure that employees have access to sufficient resources to support them with working from home.
  • Encourage all individuals to be transparent about their working hours (e.g. on email signatures and calendars).
  • Make explicit that individuals do not need to disclose the reason for their flexible working request to encourage more to do so.

Furthermore, a report on gender equality shared published by the Behavioural Insights Team suggests that employers should:

  • Advertise and offer all jobs, including senior roles, as having specific flexible working options.
  • Encourage senior leaders to role model working flexibly and to champion flexible working.
  • Encourage and enable men to work flexibly, so that it is not seen as only a benefit for women.
  • Avoid an organisation-wide, one-size-fits-all approach (for example, specifying the number of days employees can work from home).
  • Talk to fathers about changing their working patterns when they have children, not just mothers.

More employers need to recognise that increased flexible working among both men and women is an indicator of a more sustainable and successful business with an increased talent pool, better retention of staff and a more engaged, healthy and productive workforce.  This is a win-win.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.