Jane Bradley: Is your employer a flexible friend?

Working from home can be helpful at times of crisis. Picture: Anna Bizon
Working from home can be helpful at times of crisis. Picture: Anna Bizon
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Some firms are sympathetic about giving unexpected time off, others take a very hard line. Jane Bradley calls for balance

When a close member of my friend Laura’s household was diagnosed with terminal cancer and needed round-the-clock care, she had no choice but to take time off work to look after him.

Luckily she had an understanding boss: herself.

She kindly allowed herself to work from home when she needed to, give herself the morning off if necessary and even take time out to take Chucky to emergency vet appointments.

Yes, Chucky was a cat. Admittedly, he had had a sad life. His previous owner had died and he’d been left all alone in a flat near to Laura’s, with just once a day visitation rights when a relative of the dead owner came to feed him. When Laura, who has a heart of gold, heard this, she took him in. But soon, the vet found that what they had thought to be a humpback was actually cancer and Laura’s career as a palliative care veterinary nurse began.

People who are not animal people – myself included – might think this was kind of nuts. Just kind of.

But talking to Laura, I can see that she had no other option, What was she supposed to do with poor, dying Chucky? He was her responsibility. He was a part of her family: both she and her six-year-old daughter cried for weeks when Chucky finally corked it.

Laura was lucky: being self employed, she had the option of both looking after Chucky and keeping her job. But she admits she would have probably had to call in sick to look after him if she worked for someone else and her employer had not been flexible.

“I just wouldn’t have left an animal in pain on his own, I think they need someone with them when they’re ill, no different to kids to be honest,” she explained.

Another friend, a long-time pet lover, told me that she and her husband had decided not to get a dog until they were in a situation where they could work from home. Then, when they both decided to move on and take a promotion, flexibility around the care of their pet became a major factor in future employment negotiation.

Indeed, an increasing number of companies have started to offer “pet friendly” policies as part of their benefits package. As well as the chance to nip home during the day to walk your dog, some firms also allow staff leave to take a sick animal to the vet, or the right to stay at home to care for them if they are ill.

This is flexible working at its finest. Or is it? A scout around human resources websites and it turns out that time off for looking after ill pets is the least of it.

Last month, a province in China ruled that women who are on their period should be entitled to up to two days off – on presentation of a medical certificate. The scheme is already in place for women in the Shanxi and Hubei provinces of the country.

South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Japan – where the policy was introduced as far back as 1947, when working women were presumably as alien a concept as men taking parental leave is today – also have menstrual leave policies in place.

Perhaps even more astonishingly, it has been adopted by at least one British company – Coexist – which introduced “period leave” for its staff.

It is an interesting one. For the minority of women who have particularly painful periods, perhaps this would be beneficial, but surely if things are that bad they could take an ordinary sick day?

Yet, this kind of extreme flexibility, according to Dr Jill Miller, research adviser at human relations industry body the CIPD, is becoming the norm and is expected by workers of the younger generation.

“The need for flexible working is not going to go away,” she told me. “Often it is talked about as a marginal issues, often for people who are parents and have young children to look after – but increasingly, it affects people of all ages.”

Some companies have begun a backlash against flexible working with tech giant Yahoo one of the most high profile to introduce a ban on working from home.

Perhaps strange in an industry which created the technology which has allowed us to do this, but incoming chief executive Marissa Mayer quickly implemented the policy shortly after she took over in 2013, claiming that working from home reduces “speed and quality” of work.

It seems that balance should be key – in both directions. For, while all of this innovative practice is going on in some workplaces, under statutory law employers do not have to give a member of staff what has become known as “compassionate leave”.

The Employment Rights Act of 1996 says that every employee is entitled to time off – unpaid – to care for dependants: including “unforeseen matters and emergencies involving a dependant” and “time off to arrange or attend a funeral”.

Of course, many companies choose to be more lenient, especially in a tragic situation. But, legally, they do not have to give people time to grieve, either paid or unpaid.

Time to arrange a funeral, yes. But bereavement leave, no. In theory, someone could have to return to work days after losing a child or spouse and get on with their job as if everything is normal – or risk losing their job.

We are left in a situation where some companies are offering people paid leave to mourn a pet or deal with a heavy period, while others are forced to take just a couple of days off, with their salary docked, to mourn a child.

It’s a crazy world.