I felt very fortunate when my family was struck down with the flu recently, as I was able to access paid carer’s leave from my employer to look after my young son.

This happened to be the same week that the UniSA Centre for Work + Life published the findings from the 2014 Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI) survey in the report The Persistent Challenge: Living, Working and Caring in Australia in 2014.

The study revealed that 44 per cent of Australian workers are juggling paid work and childcare, and nearly 20 per cent are caring for an elderly person or someone with a chronic illness or disability.

It also indicated that those combining two types of caring responsibilities, for example caring for a child and an elder, experience high levels of work-life interference and this has a major negative impact on wellbeing.

Unfortunately not everyone has access to family friendly benefits and flexibility in the workplace to help them cope with these competing demands.

The Australian Government introduced a Right to Request flexible work arrangements as part of 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, and this was expanded in mid-2013 to include all carers and other select groups such as older workers. However this does not extend to all employees – for example those with less than 12 months’ service in an organisation.

The AWALI report found that around a third of working Australians would like to have a flexible work arrangement however they had not made such a request to their employer. This was largely because they did not believe that flexibility would be possible in their job or accepted by their manager. The research also found that only 40 per cent of employees were aware the Right to Request a flexible work arrangement existed.

In my office the fact that everyone, including senior management and those without regular caring responsibilities, accesses some type of flexible work arrangement helps to create a positive and supportive workplace culture in which flexibility is the norm rather than the exception. It is not viewed as an extra benefit available only to mothers of young children.

These flexible work arrangements my colleagues and I make use of include working part-time, working from home, varied start and finish times to accommodate school drop-offs and pick-ups or to avoid a long commute in peak hour traffic, and access to time-in-lieu for working overtime or flexi-time e.g. working slightly longer hours daily across a nine day fortnight.

High profile women working in the public sphere are often asked how they manage to “have it all” and juggle a career with raising a family. I recall one popular television presenter’s response to this question as it struck a chord with me; she did not consider juggling a job and family as “having it all” with the selfish connotations that go along with that, she preferred to focus on how she could use her skills and experience to contribute to the workforce as well as caring for her family.

Many working mothers would strongly identify with this sentiment. Mothers and carers have a lot to contribute to their families as well as their workplaces. Organisations benefit from retaining skilled and experienced workers, and there are direct benefits to the economy through increased labour market participation and disposable household income.

It is not selfish for women to want/need to take care of their young children and work, or for carers of an elderly person or someone with a disability to also want/need to participate in paid work, or indeed for employees without regular caring responsibilities to enjoy a decent work-life balance.

But quite simply, research shows that without access to flexible work arrangements and benefits such as carer’s leave, many women with young children and other types of carers would withdraw from paid work, either by choice or necessity.

Flexibility needs to be protected in legislation and organisational policies, and there have been some positive steps in this direction, but it also needs to be embraced in workplace culture so people can feel confident asking for a flexible work arrangement knowing it will be given every reasonable consideration and not be seen as unusual or too difficult to accommodate.

If we want more women and carers to participate in the paid workforce we need to make flexibility available to all workers as standard practice rather than being an exception to the rule for some. When flexibility is truly embraced in workplace culture as the norm it will improve wellbeing for all.

By: Zoe Gray

Source: Business Day, Sydney Morning Herald