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Flexible work 'should' be more accessible: report

08 October, 2014

Flexible work arrangements must be made more accessible to all Australian workers, according to a national report released by the University of South Australia.

The 2014 Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI), published by the University's Centre for Work + Life, suggests Australia should follow in the footsteps of European countries which have extended the right to request flexible hours to all workers regardless of whether they have caring responsibilities or not. 

Emulating the flexibility policies of the UK and other European countries would be a significant step forwards in improving the quality of Australians' working lives, according to Centre for Work + Life Acting Director Dr Natalie Skinner.

"Access to flexible work arrangements supports employee health, wellbeing and work-life outcomes, as well as positively affecting workforce participation," Dr Skinner says.

The AWALI 2014 report – titled The Persistent Challenge: Living, Working and Caring in Australia in 2014 – found employees' caring responsibilities are a major issue in the workplace.

In addition to young children, many Australian workers have elderly parents to look after, are caring for children with disabilities, and have a desire to spend more time with older children, Dr Skinner says.

She asserted organisations need policies that recognise caring responsibilities including flexible start and finish times, time off during the day, quality part-time work, the ability to work from home, as well as paid parental leave.

Right to Request

AWALI 2014 examines Australian employees' request-making for flexible work, four years after the introduction of the formal Right to Request through the Fair Work Act 2009.

Parents of pre-schoolers or children aged under 18 with a disability gained the right to request flexible work arrangements from 1 January 2010 as part of the Act. The Australian government then expanded the Right to Request in mid-2013 to include all carers.

Dr Skinner says while this was an encouraging step in the right direction, the reforms do not go far enough to effectively assist the most vulnerable Australians in the paid workforce.

"While broadening the Right to Request to include employees with caring responsibilities other than childcare is a positive move, it does not extend to employees with less than 12 months' service in an organisation," she says.

"This does little to help ease the strain for people who have insecure casual work or short fixed-term contracts.

"There is also no appeal provision for those who have their request for flexible arrangements refused by their employer. The Right to Request would be greatly strengthened by a mechanism of this type."

Dr Skinner says the majority of employees remain unaware of the Right to Request more than four years after its introduction. The study reveals that only around 40 per cent of employees are aware the right exists. The rate of request-making has not increased over the three AWALI surveys of 2009, 2012 and 2014.

Requesting flexibility

She says most employees who request flexibility (57 per cent) do so by simply asking their manager or referring to the organisation's policy, and almost 65 per cent of them have their request granted.

"Around a third of employees would like to have flexibility at work but have not made a request to their employer. This indicates that a stronger Right to Request entitlement would assist those who feel unable to request flexibility within their current working arrangements," she says.

Dr Skinner says the 2013 extension of the Right to Request to all workers with care responsibilities was an important step, but remains a relatively weak entitlement without an effective appeal mechanism.

"Our findings create a case for a firmer Right to Request, with wider eligibility and an appeal mechanism, to assist workers to achieve more flexible working conditions," she says.

"In particular this would help workers in those workplaces where culture, practice and management norms are not friendly to flexibility, and workers who lack workplace power because of their job insecurity, lower skill and weaker labour force position."

Policy and practice

Dr Skinner says strategies to overcome the gap between policy and practice must address the risk of negative consequences for workers who try to access policies such as flexibility or carers leave.

"Such consequences include reduced employment participation of women, reduced career opportunities for flexible or part-time workers, and reduced access to preferred roles, tasks and opportunities that both utilise workers' full range of skills and provide opportunity for development and advancement," she says.

"Whether framed as unintended consequences or overt discrimination, it is crucial to recognise that work-life policies will only be effective to the extent that workers do not experience economic, social or career penalties with their use.

"For work-life policies to be truly effective they must be accepted and integrated into the mainstream for all workers, not simply as a special consideration for working mothers and carers."

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