Jane Bradley: Part-time staff still held in contempt

A colleague's attitude can have a significant effect on the morale of the part-time worker.
A colleague's attitude can have a significant effect on the morale of the part-time worker.
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There are signs that enlightened attitudes over flexible working practices have started to regress, finds Jane Bradley

I know a lot of people who work part time. They are predominantly women, though not all.

Most cut their hours after having children, having been able to persuade the company they were working for, pre-maternity or paternity leave, to allow them to do so. Some go part time to pursue another interest or hobby - or to care for a family member.

Almost all struggle to keep their heads above water professionally - not because they cannot manage to carry out their work to a high standard in their allotted hours, but because to be seen as anything other than being committed full-time, 24 hours a day, to their place of work is regarded as career suicide.

One friend, who works in human resources for a large financial institution, is constantly on the phone when we meet up: juggling conference calls and two small children on the day she is not paid to be at work. If she doesn’t do so, she fears, she will be looked over for any future promotions or career progression.

Others admit they fit in extra work in the evenings, logging onto their laptops after the children have gone to bed, creeping out of the house early in the mornings to start work at the crack of dawn, in a bid to fit a week’s worth of hours into a part-time paid week.

Some have given up work entirely, feeling that they were bullied in their workplace for requesting to work reduced hours. Others have gone on to start their own business or have taken a career break until they feel they are able go back into the world of work full time.

These people are all intelligent, highly skilled individuals who are - or could be - making a significant professional contribution of some kind.

A report out earlier this month by IHS Markit found that there is a growing gap between the number of available staff and the permanent positions on offer in the Scottish jobs market. There are not enough people to fill the jobs. Not enough good people, at any rate.

Experts from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation told me that companies in Scotland will have to “get creative” as to how they are going to recruit staff. They need, they said, to look at how else they can find potential candidates: offer packages to encourage parents who have taken a career break back into the workplace; work out ways of offering flexible contracts that allow someone with a long term illness or disability to take on work.

The problem is that this concept has not yet filtered down to many employers - or workers.

One friend, who doesn’t have children herself but is married to a teacher and often helps with the care of her nieces and nephews in the school holidays, asked her employer of 15 years if she could reduce her hours to term time only - taking a substantial pay cut - to allow her to coordinate her leave with that of her husband.

She didn’t even get as far as being able to put in a formal request, after a blunt response to the suggestion. She went away with her tail between her legs and immediately began searching for a new job which suited her needs better.

There are obviously jobs and situations when working flexibly is not possible, but employees still have a right to ask to do so and they should not feel that they cannot even make that request.

In many offices, while the company is supportive of staff working part time, other employees often see it as their right to make jibes about their colleague’s working status - the “oh, what have we done to be graced with your presence today” kind of old chestnut.

Most are joking, but their jibes are a dig against the professional status of the part time worker and should not be tolerated.

In my case - and in that of most of my part timer acquaintances - nothing has changed since I decided to drop my hours to part time, apart from the fact I am physically not in the office for two days in every Monday to Friday week. If I cannot fit in everything I need to do, or an interviewee is not available during the hours I am in the office, I finish work on my days off: unpaid.

Most part timers in any industry do the same - with many working well above and beyond their contracted hours.

Most importantly - and this often seems to come as a surprise to some people - if you work part time, you only get paid for the days you work.

The majority of people who work part-time have the same deal: if someone works three days a week, they get paid three fifths of the full annual salary for their role. Four days, four fifths. It is not difficult maths.

There are those who work “compressed hours”, fitting a full working week into, say, four days by starting early, finishing late and working through lunch breaks, but even they, as full-time workers, anecdotally, are often harassed by colleagues for not being in the office every day.

As a part time employee, I am not party to any benefits that my full time colleagues could not get. In fact, every worker in the UK is now entitled to put in a formal request for flexible working, whether they have dependents such as children or not.

Yet, it cannot be denied that “part timer” remains a phrase used with disgust, contempt and a certain amount of resentment.

During the recession of 2008, it was thought that working patterns would change forever. Large financial companies - previously the ones who had fuelled the 24-hour working culture - were forced to ask employees to drop to a four day week or risk redundancy. As a result, many people who would not previously have considered working flexibly began to do so and found it was fun to have more time to hang out with the kids; take up a new hobby; write that novel.

Even once the economy recovered, many opted at that time to keep their new working pattern, to regain some kind of work-life balance.

Yet, almost a decade on, we appear to have regressed.

If we are to stimulate the Scottish economy and fill gaps in the workforce, especially post-Brexit, when many Europeans have already begun to return home, afraid that they will not be given the right to live here long-term, we need to start accepting that everyone cannot - and does not want to - work in the same way.