Men, mental health and flexible working

I was asked to speak at an Acas conference on mental health and work recently. The organisers wanted me to speak as a working dad with caring responsibilities. Other speakers were knocking off policy issues and research, I was brought in to offer a personal view.

But inevitably I plugged my books and went heavy on flexible working, paternity leave etc.

I ought to charge for this stuff but at the same time there’s limited opportunities right now to get out there, make these sorts of speeches and make the case. The internet seems the best bet. So in that spirit I’ve copied my speech below. I got a lot of good feedback from folk who said it contained many good, strong points. So I reckon it’s worth a read if you’re interested in HR, mental health, gender equality – basically if you like good things.

Inevitably I changed things up a little in the delivery but it’s the core message that matters…

Introduction

Hello and thank you for asking me to speak today at this really important event.

When I was first approached to join the panel today I was at first slightly wary of talking about work and mental health. I am not a mental health professional. However I took the call just as the latest lockdown got under way and I decided perhaps I have got something to offer. After all I have mental health.

I’m primary care giver for my two children.

And when I took the call I was completely wrung out. 

As I mentioned, lockdown 3 had just been announced and I felt like I just had nothing left. During the first lockdown we’d gone for a daily walk as a family, I’d invented little games to occupy us on those walks like choosing your favourite car that we walked past. The conversation on those walks invariably turned to one of two subjects – what you’d do if you won the lottery or what superpower you’d have if you could choose. That got wearing after three months. The thought of having the same conversations again for another three months was a trying one.

I’d been furloughed from my role with workingdads.co.uk for some of that first lockdown and that gave me more capacity to muck in with homeschool. This time round I’m editing workingdads.co.uk for some of the week as normal and the rest of the time picking up my freelance projects including writing politics columns and producing the A Podcast of One’s Own podcast for former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard. (It’s a good listen, I heartily recommend it).

And as this lockdown has progressed I’ve become bored. Not just bored of the monotony but, in particular, bored of apologising for missing emails, being slow to respond or putting together speeches without slides to make them a bit more interesting and blaming the pressures of juggling work and homeschool. Even if I tell myself it’s entirely reasonable to drop the balls sometimes when faced with that juggle.

So I am aware of the mental health demands on employees, particularly those with caring responsibilities.

As editor of workingdads.co.uk I’m aware of a lot of the best practice employers have worked up to cope with the pandemic.

And as a dad who has worked part time and flexibly for some time I’m aware of many of the issues about genuine choice in how people work and gender equality. 

Today I want to first of all just fill you in a little bit on my background and how I came to do what I do.

Then I want to look at what I’ve termed the ‘micro’ – the steps that employers have taken around mental health over the last 12 months, share some ideas and best practice that have caught my eye.

And finally I want to look at what I’ve termed the macro. The larger forces that impact mental health, particularly gender equality and how that applies to the workplace and flexible working in particular.

Background

So, a bit about me first of all and my engagement with flexible working.

When my daughter was born 13 years ago I was working as a journalist on Fleet Street. I got two weeks of unpaid paternity leave. Shared Parental Leave had yet to be invented. However I wanted to be around, to be as hands on as I could. That amounted to exercising my right to request flexible working and condensing my hours. 

When I handed in my application for flexible working – using the Acas template of course – there was much furrowing of brows, people going out of the office to have conversations that were clearly about me. I couldn’t really see the issue but my then boss let the cat out of the bag when he asked ‘Why did you have to go about it like this?’ I had broken the boys club rule. I should’ve just asked him off the cuff if I could flex my hours a bit, come to an arrangement, coincidentally left him with the power to take that away at will rather than have it in writing protecting us both.

It remains the case that the vast majority of men with flexible working arrangements have informal flexible working arrangements, deals struck in the canteen or even on the golf course. That is less than ideal.

Not long after that I was working in political journalism and after covering the 2014 Scottish independence referendum at close quarters I asked my line managers about flexing again. I was fairly worn out. My partner and I wanted to do four days at work each. My bosses were resistant. I floated the idea of a job share which they said was inappropriate because ‘journalism is not like making cans of beans’ – which was both true and entirely irrelevant.

(Interestingly I recently put together a job share application for a job in political journalism and the application was dismissed out of hand by the person with responsibility for hiring. Disappointing that not much has changed in the last few years in that industry at least.)

The result of this episode was that I went part time, working three days a week. The reaction at work was informative. There was much confusion. I was working in Westminster, in the Houses of Parliament at the time, a place that is fuelled by ambition. Reducing my hours equated to lacking ambition in many people’s eyes in journalism and politics. A telling response. Do all those women who go part time after starting a family lack ambition? I think not.

But at home things clicked into place. My partner went full time and everything in our lives felt much more balanced. We were both fulfilling the roles we wanted to do. Our mental health was much improved. 

In 2016, after another referendum, I went freelance, flexing around school drop off and pick up. There are of course different stresses that go with being self employed. But the parental guilt is much reduced. Though of course it can never be eliminated entirely.

After that came two books. 

The Gender Agenda, co-authored with my partner and inspired by our @GenderDiary Twitter account looked at the different ways boys and girls are treated from birth – based on our experience of the different ways our son and daughter were treated – and the limits stereotypes impose.

I had gone into that project as a fully fledged feminist looking to break down the barriers society puts in front of my daughter. I emerged from it aware that boys are also subject to damaging stereotypes. And nowhere are they more powerful than when boys become dads.

Hence my second book Dads Don’t Babysit, subtitled ‘towards equal parenting’. This book looked at the benefits to men, women, children, the economy and society if men and women share childcare more equally. And we looked at why that isn’t happening and how to overcome the barriers that currently exist.

Both books are still available on Amazon. In fact if for some reason you found yourself watching Scottish Questions from parliament yesterday you may have spotted a copy of the latter on the bookshelf of shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray!

When an opening arose to edit the new website workingdads.co.uk in early 2019 I was confident of landing the job since I literally wrote the book on the subject, and so it proved.

Best practice

That job has brought me into contact with a lot of dads working differently and a lot of employers thinking deeply about things like D&I and about mental health, particularly over the last 12 months.

Earlier this week we held our annual awards ceremony. It was online for the first time. And we rejigged our award categories to recognise the different challenges that employers and their HR teams had faced in 2020.

I should point out that as a journalist I was completely bewildered by our Top Employer awards when I first encountered them. In journalism the awards are doled out on the basis of no more honourable or systemic basis than ‘buggins turn’. But for the Top Employer awards we get a panel of experts to go through the entries with a fine tooth comb. It’s bewilderingly impressive.

McDonald’s won our best for mental health award. They’ve obviously faced huge disruption to their business because of the pandemic. But the judges were impressed at the way they tailored their response. A lot of their staff are young people, and lockdown impacted those people differently to some of the managers and franchisees for example. 

The awards, and a lot of the coverage on workingdads.co.uk (and our big sister site workingmums.co.uk) over the last year has looked at mental health in the workplace. 

Some of the innovative and impressive measures that I’ve come across included the widespread roll out of mental health first aiders. But I was impressed by the company that employs a lot of male engineers to fit meters in peoples homes and things like that who made a point of making sure the mental health first aiders came from across the company. They had plenty of women working in head office volunteer but they had to put in the effort to get the men in the field to get involved too.

The same company set up a wellbeing page on its intranet. And as well as posting resources there around what helps was available they provided links to webcams from zoos and nature reserves after it was suggested that just looking at animals and nature can relieve stress.

Another company provided time out for exercise and scheduled wellbeing days.

Apps have been useful for those working remotely – whether that’s mental health apps like Unmind or sleep apps.

Another firm measured its success around remote working by not just measuring engagement but empowerment among employees too.

There are a few over-riding themes I’ve perceived in companies response to mental health and Covid.

The first is honest communication. The companies that have done it best have been honest with their employees about the situation. 

And I’m working on a new motto which is something like Communication is Key with Covid. Whether that’s communication between employer and employee. Or employee and employer when the employee has caring and homeschool responsibilities. Or within the household between partners. Or between parent and child. Good communication helps make everything easier.

Employers have to recognise that for many people work is a cause of stress. 

And while it looks good when employers give their teams plenty of different channels through which they can communicate that needs to come with a hefty message that they don’t need to use ALL the channels or that too can cause stress if employees feel they must respond to emails, WhatsApp groups, Slack chats and all the rest.

Similarly, encouraging employees to take time out of their day for exercise or days off for wellbeing is all well and good. But if they return to the same workload in fewer hours that will actually increase anxiety. Workload has to be managed.

And fundamentally a key cause of stress is money. The best companies topped up furlough pay to 100% where they could or provided emergency loans or handouts where possible. By doing so they telegraphed loud and clear that they understood that their people would be stressed and anxious as a result of the pandemic and its attendant upheaval, and that they understood the potential sources of that stress.

The next big issue in mental health and the workplace is going to be the end of the furlough scheme. Even in a best case scenario a huge number of people are going to return from an extended period out of the workforce. I know when I returned from furlough I was surprised at how tricky it was to get back into the right headspace and to get back up to speed.

Now, most mums have already experienced this. I’m hopeful that men returning from furlough will understand the challenges mums returning from maternity leave have to face and be more empathetic going forward. 

But there is another way we can engender that empathy….

Are we truly working flexibly?

So this is where I look at the bigger picture. There is certainly a school of thought that says now is the time to look at the bigger picture, to build back better, that to return everything to the way ti was this time next year would be a failure and disservice to everything that has happened in between.

And I’ve a lot of sympathy with that approach.

The question posed in this session is ‘Are we truly working flexibly?’

The answer is a resounding no. 

Fundamentally, because not enough men are doing it.

Not enough men because we know men want to do more of it

Not enough men because we as long as we are stuck with a picture in which the majority of men work full time and a huge proportion of women work part time, as long as we make it easier for women to work flexibly or part time and to fall out of the workforce entirely then we end up with the situation we faced in 2020 as the pandemic played out – women expected to do more childcare, they suffer more from having to juggle work and domestic life and they are more likely to lose their jobs. See the horrifying stat from America last month that found the US economy lost 140,000 jobs in December – all of them women.

I want to look at how we fix that, and why we ought to fix that. Let’s start with the why. And the answer to that is tied closely to issues around mental health. 

Firstly because everyone wants it.

Statistics from Statista show 78% of women described themselves and feeling positive or very positive about flexible working. The figure for men? 77%

That matches almost perfectly the findings of our most recent survey for workingdads in which 8 out of 10 respondents said they wanted more flexible working in the future.

Employees who are content with their work life balance make better employees. They’ll be happier, more productive, more loyal. If you want to attract and retain the best talent from here on in then you simply have to offer flexible working.

Look at the recent example from Zurich for proof. They started advertising all their roles as open to flexible, part time or job share and saw the number of applicants rise not just among women but among men as well. And those already in the company and working flexibly of part time reported a greater sense of belonging.

If we recognise that work can be a cause of stress. Then we have to accept the challenge of ensuring that work is not a cause of stress. Flexible working provides an answer.

Another reason why we ought to encourage more men to work flexibly is that the potential benefits are too big to be ignored.

We know that where men’s work life balance allows them to get more involved in parenting and family life they enjoy better mental health. 

And so do their partners. 

And so do their children. 

In my book Dad’s Don’t Babysit we called it the parenting hat-trick. 

Men who are more involved in family life are happier, healthier, and more productive. They report better mental health, stronger relationships and a better romantic relationship with their partner. If this is what it takes to convince men to change they way they work: men who flex get more sex as I memorably headlined an article on workingdads.co.uk before being told to tone it down a bit. (The only time in two years in the job I’ve had any editorial interference!)

Women whose partners are more involved in family life also report feeling happier. There’s some evidence that they are less likely to suffer poor mental health if their partner is more involved. They certainly reap the benefits of sharing the load of parenting and that makes it easier for them to pursue their own goals.

Children of more engaged fathers grow up smarter, less likely to get in trouble with the law, have better relationships and a more gender equal outlook. 

These benefits cannot be ignored.

And whilst I called it the parenting hat-trick in my book there is another benefit not to be sniffed at (it’s just there’s not a name for something with four elements, there’s now quad-trick or whatever)

Where men do more childcare that frees up women to pursue the work-life balance they actually want and with more women in the workforce the modelling shows the economy swells to the tune of up to 12% of GDP – so billions of pounds that could come in handy as we try to bounce back from the economic hit inflicted by Covid. Gender equality is not just a nice to have, it ought to be at the core of any recovery for lots of reasons. And any government that ignores that is open to accusations of deep seated sexism.

Far be it for me to mention at this point Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s comments earlier in the week about ‘thanking all the mums’ for stepping up through the pandemic and successfully hacking off dads who also do more during lockdown (though not as much as women) and women who’d like more than just thanks – job protection, recognition of maternity leave in the job support schemes and gender equality for a start.

So that’s why we need more men working flexibly. How do we make it happen. 

We need to give men the opportunity to be the dads they want to be. In a notable survey for GQ magazine around two thirds of men chose ‘being a present father’ as the most important aspect of masculinity.

Asking them to achieve that on two weeks of paternity leave is patently absurd. Why would they want to stay closely involved in family life if they are granted one 26th of the leave granted to mums, implying their role is one 26th as important.

Again our workingdads.co.uk surveys repeatedly find men say they don’t think two weeks is enough. Yet a tiny proportion, certainly lower than one in 10, take up the option of Shared Parental Leave. 

First of all that expectation – set out so clearly in the paltry amount of paternity leave on offer – is off putting.

Secondly there’s the issue of pay. With men most likely to be the primary earner in any given household it’s more a drop for them to give up their regular salary for the £150 per week of statutory parental pay. Though personally I think many more men could swallow that even if only for a couple of weeks. As one dad I spoke to who had done Shared Parental Leave pointed out he had at least six months before the birth and another six months after it to give up takeaway coffee every day, bank the savings and build a fund to support him through six weeks of Shared Parental Leave.

We know that where men are offered well paid parental leave they take it. There’s clearly an appetite. You can look at the example in Sweden of course where men who don’t take months of paternity leave are regarded as weird. Closer to home look at a company like Aviva. They offer dads around six months of paid paternity leave. And the vast majority use it. At the last count the average length of paternity leave there was 23 weeks. They don’t employ some unrepresentative sample of dads.

But it’s not just about pay, Aviva are very good at sharing best practice, getting dads who’ve taken leave to talk about it and normalising it. I spoke to one dad at Aviva who was nervous about taking such a long stint of paternity leave after starting a new position but his line manager was incredibly supportive. Compare that to the dad who asks his line manager about Shared Parental Leave and is met by the traditional sucking of teeth.

And if men get the opportunity to be an engaged dad from the start they stay engaged.

The European Parliament published a policy paper just this week on helping women into and supporting women in the workforce. Among it’s key conclusions: men who spend more time with their families from birth tend to be ‘full time’ parents for life. Consequently employers need to offer more paternity leave, properly funded and take steps to normalise men using paternity leave, working flexible and essentially normalise the idea of dads being dads.

Flexible working is the next step to keeping those men engaged and creating equal opportunity for men and women, mums and dads. 

Currently less than 10% of dads have a flexible working arrangement. But that’s not to say so few dads actually work flexibly. As I’ve found in my working life, lots of dads have informal flexible working arrangements. Agreements with their line managers that aren’t written down. That’s fine as far as it goes as long as those dads speak up about the fact they are working flexibly. Too often they come to an agreement and it’s all done on the nod – mysterious off site meetings on a Friday afternoon are a well reported phenomenon.

Too often among men and among employers flexible working is seen as something for women.

In my book we found an example of a woman who was granted the flexibility to move to Greece to care for her elderly mother and work from there. But a man at the same company requesting flexibility was straight down refused. The problem isn’t the unfairness in that scenario, it’s that a woman with caring responsibilities is regarded as normal and catered for but a man is denied a caring identity. And everyone suffers because of those stereotypes.

The legislation is there for men to ask for flexible working. Line managers need to encourage it, bosses need to grant it, men need to ask for it. 

And when men work flexibly they gain in empathy, a vital skill post pandemic. It’s noticeable that for as long as the flexible workforce has been overwhelmingly female problems around part timers and remote workers missing out on training and promotions have been overlooked. Last year many many more men found themselves working from home and suddenly those some problems became live issues. 

So true flexible working would involve men and women doing it equally. I’m focussed on mums and dads but true flexible working would see everyone working as works for them and their employer. If taking Fridays or Wednesday mornings off to pursue their passion – whether that’s training for a marathon, or a round of golf or even just meeting friends for an early evening pint – aids their mental health and makes them a happier and therefore more productive employee then it’s good for everyone if it can be accommodated by business needs. And yes, true flexible working also means that employee joins the Zoom call or comes into an office if there’s a vital meeting or genuine business need in the time they are meant to be off. It does work both ways.

True flexible working means encouraging more men to do it and the way to do that is to offer them better, well paid paternity leave to give them the opportunity to be involved from family life from the start. And to normalise men working flexibly. That means sharing best practice and case studies of men working differently at all levels of an organisation.

True flexible working means accommodating plenty of options. A 2019 document claimed there’s 100 different ways of working flexibly. There’s a lot of talk about the 9-5 but if working five days a week in an office between 9-5 works for you then go for it. But it has to be one of a suite of options including working from home, flexing your hours, job share,  and, the one that is currently talked up most in light of the great pandemic working experiment of the last 10 months – hybrid working in which someone combines working at home with working in a specified workplace. 

True flexible working makes people happier, shares the mental load more equitably between the sexes, engenders fairness. That’s the mental health benefit.

I hope that many of you watching this today are already aware of this, and working to make it a reality. If not, then get on board because this change is happening and the most successful organisations will be the ones that embrace it.

If you are already working on it then I wish you every success and if I can help at all then get in touch. Hit me up on LinkedIn or through workingdads.co.uk 

Best of luck and thanks for listening.

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