A government plan announced last month aims to extend flexible working rights to far more of the UK workforce, by giving employees the right to request such arrangements from their first day of a new job, rather than after 26 weeks as previously allowed.
It will give employees the right to make two flexible working requests per year, rather than one, and put stricter requirements on employers to fully explore all options before the request is rejected.
The adoption of home and hybrid working models during the pandemic has driven a national conversation about flexible working. A six-month pilot of a four-day working week by 70 companies across the UK ended in December, with many of the companies choosing to extend the trial or make the change permanent. But as the country comes around to the well-being benefits of shorter and more flexible work days, how can it be ensured that this carries over to low-paid workers and those who earn per-hour?
Are we wedded to the work week?
Reducing working hours is nothing new; it’s been one of the primary achievements of the trade union movement since the industrial revolution.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that the UK established the full two-day weekend, and in the 1940s and 50s the average work week was around 45 hours.
Even in more recent years there has been a noticeable decline in hours worked, in the late 90s the average full-time worker worked more than 38 hours a week. Data released this week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that the average full-time working week is now 36.2 hours, the lowest on record apart from in the pandemic.
This hides huge variation, however, by gender and also by income level. Analysis of ONS labour force survey data by the Resolution Foundation, the living standards think tank, finds that higher-paid workers tend to work much longer hours.
[See also: “I’m embarrassed to say I work for the civil service”: inside Whitehall’s year of woe]
Among employees in the highest hourly pay quintile the average man works 39 hours, and the average woman 34 hours. Meanwhile the lowest-paid women are working on average just 25 hours a week. (This data does only collect employees, so doesn’t include self-employment and informal work.)
A large part of this gender difference comes down to childcare. Resolution Foundation analysis in 2020 found that the average 30-year-old man worked around 37 hours a week, whether or not he had children. A 20-year-old woman without children averaged around 35 hours a week, but a 30-year-old mother worked 20 hours a week.
Flexible hours and home working can in particular be a huge benefit to parents, enabling them to spend more time with their children and split childcare more equitably. But Tim Sharp, senior employment rights officer at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) says that “there is a huge class divide in flexible working” with flexible working requests more often rejected for those in low-paid work.
And flexible working rights also don’t extend to those on insecure contracts. Since the end of 2013 the number of people aged 16 and over on zero-hours contracts has gone up by 78 per cent to 1.05 million; these people make up 3.2 per cent of those in employment. According to the latest ONS statistics 21.7 per cent of workers caring, leisure and service occupations are on zero-hours contracts.
Who benefits from shorter working hours?
Of course, a huge part of the push for flexible working hours and a four-day week is down to their benefits to well-being. Feedback from the four-day week pilot reported that workers were happier, less burnt-out, had better work-life balance and higher levels of productivity.
A 2019 study found that reduced hours flexible work arrangements correlated with lower biological signs of chronic stress, such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels. But these benefits only come alongside financial security and worker choice. Many people working part-time or reduced hours are not doing so because they want to but because they have no other option.
“It is really positive that initiatives like the four-day week, which explore different ways of working and ensuring that workers get the benefit for productivity gains in the workplace, are getting greater attention,” Sharp says. “But there is another side to this. For many workers, what they need to balance work and other responsibilities is predictability in their hours and pattern of work.”
Research at the University of Hertfordshire found that the financial and social insecurity of zero-hours contracts makes anxiety, stress and depression common. Those surveyed reported that, far from enabling work-life balance, the precariousness of their work caused extreme stress because they were pulled between family commitments and work calls.
The Living Wage Foundation has found that two-thirds of workers on variable-hours contracts earning below the Living Wage got less than a week's notice for their shifts, leading to financial insecurity and extra pressures such as last-minute childcare costs. One in six of these workers got less than 24 hours notice.
The latest ONS survey found that 13 per cent of employees on a zero-hours contract wanted more hours than they were getting, compared with 5 per cent of employees on fixed-hour contracts.
“Part of ensuring that workers get a decent work-life balance is ending the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts by giving workers a right to a normal-hours contract after a period in their job and also making sure that they get decent notice of shifts and cancellations,” Sharp says.
There are other measures that would ensure everyone can access the benefits of flexible-hours working: a “right to switch off” so workers don’t feel obligated to answer calls and emails out of hours; and support with progression so workers don’t feel trapped in low-paid work.
Increasing the minimum wage and benefits would give more households the financial ability to choose to work fewer hours, and prioritise other things without worrying about being able to afford to live. And while the new measures go some way to allowing employees to find flexibility in their work, the government could go further by incorporating secure, flexible-hours working practices into the public sector, encouraging the private sector to do the same.
[See also: The Policy Ask with Adam Lent: “You can’t rip resources away from councils and claim to have a moral compass”]