Civil servants say flexible working 'hinders careers and leads to extra hours'

FDA calls for creation of flexible-working passport among reforms to support smarter working

Photo: Adobe Stock

By Richard Johnstone

26 Sep 2019

Over one-third of women working part time and flexibly in the civil service believe doing so has hindered their career, while a significant proportion of full time officials using flexible working feel they have to put in extra hours, a report has found.

In a study examining the extent and effectiveness of flexible working across the civil service commissioned by the FDA union, the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London has found large barriers despite government’s pledge to be the country’s most inclusive employer by 2020.

A poll of 1,600 civil service FDA members looked at both whether they had requested flexible working, and the effect on their career if they did, with responses from both part-time and full-time workers.

The report found a particular impact on officials who worked part time and flexibly. Over one third (35%) of women working part-time in the civil service felt that flexible working had had a negative impact on their career progression and performance ratings, compared to just less than 5% of those working flexibly on full time hours in both genders. There was not enough part-time men in the sample for them to be included.


The same proportion of part-time women who responded to the survey also felt they had to put in more hours to show their commitment, a concern that was also shared by those on full time hours – with around 20% of woman doing so saying they had work extra, and 15% of men.

Almost half of the part-time flexible workers said that their work is more likely to spill over into other areas of their life, a feeling shared by over 20% of both male and female full-time staff.

While this was a self-selecting sample, subsequent comparison by the FDA with ONS statistics found that the sample is broadly representative of the wider civil service with respect to gender, the gender composition of each grade, and full-time/part-time status, although it is weighted towards those in senior grades.

The research found that more woman than men put in flexible working requests at most grades covered the in report – Fast Stream, Grades 6 and 7, and Senior Civil Service. However, men put in more requests at the senior and higher executive officer levels.

Laura Jones, a research associate at the Global Institute for Women's Leadership said the figures showed flexible working in the civil service “needs to go alongside efforts to reform workplace culture and workload allocation”.

She added: “As long as career success is linked to excessively long working hours then there will be hesitancy among some civil servants to make use of flexible working, and a risk that those who do, primarily women, will be penalised.”

In response to the findings, the FDA made eight recommendations to government to tackle what it called the stigma around flexible working. It called for the introduction of a flexible-working passport, allowing people to take working patterns to new roles, as well as ensuring evaluations for flexible workers to ensure they are working the right amount of hours.

FDA women’s officer Victoria Jones also called on the government to actively support and develop staff who work flexibly, to build a pipeline of leaders who feel able to do the same.

“While we support the civil service’s ambition to become the most inclusive employer by 2020, the workplace culture within the civil service doesn’t always support staff working flexibly. Flexible working, for all staff, is the cornerstone of building a diverse workplace, where everyone is able to contribute without sacrificing their personal lives,” she said.

“Aside from the worrying data, there were two main underlying themes of the research. Firstly, a workplace can’t truly embrace flexible working if the culture isn’t there to support it. Our members don’t need to be chained to a desk to draft briefings but there’s still a misconception that if they’re not visible in the office, they can’t possibly be delivering.

“Secondly, if workloads aren’t adjusted then flexible working is destined to fail. Many of our members told us they were working part-time, but picking up the remaining hours of a full-time role on their non-working days.”

Flexible working allows parents to pick up their children from school and carers to attend hospital appointments and others to proactively manage their mental health, she added.

“If we want a country that works for everyone, we need the people working in the civil service to reflect the society it serves: individuals who will bring their own experiences and insight to policy creation, and who will make sure the whole UK public is represented in the decision-making process – not just those who work fixed hours.”

Responding to the report, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “Flexible working is widely offered and promoted across the whole civil service, with managers encouraged to offer different working patterns to staff to address individual needs. 

“We know that having a good work life balance helps people achieve the best results at work, particularly while coping with home challenges such as caring for loved ones.”



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