The term informal workplace flexibility described self-directed strategies that parents took without formal approval, including taking personal calls at work, rearranging meetings or leaving early but catching up at home. More than 80 per cent of parents use some informal strategies at least weekly.
Dr Hokke said mothers in particular had higher levels of psychological distress if they used a lot of informal strategies and lacked or had limited formal options.
“It might be that parents are having to just get by and make do and then that causes another element of distress if they don’t have any formal provision to work flexibly,” Dr Hokke said.
“Some formal work arrangements create more of a separation between work time and family time, whereas informal [flexibility] is really more about combining and integrating work and family. That multitasking could be why we’re seeing those adverse associations with parents’ health and wellbeing.”
The researchers found use of flexible leave arrangements such as unpaid leave was also associated with higher work-family conflict. People who are already experiencing conflict might be more likely to take leave.
Three out of four parents had accessed formal flexible work arrangements in the past 12 months and mothers accessed more of these formal arrangements than fathers.
Over all, psychological distress and burnout is similar between mothers and fathers. Mothers reported higher work-family conflict, while fathers reported greater occupational fatigue.
Jo Lees, a construction manager from Rockdale in Sydney’s south, said it was a “huge relief” that she and her husband both have flexibility at work to help take care of their daughter Zoe, age 3.
“I can come in late if I need to do drop-off, I can leave early if I need to take Zoe to martial arts, I can work from home if I’ve got a tradesman coming to do some work,” Ms Lees said. “It’s really good to know I don’t need to worry about the reaction from my colleagues or my manager.”
She left her previous job because the company agreed to her working from home once a week but managers on the ground were less supportive.
Ms Lees said flexible working reduced her stress levels, though she always felt the nagging doubt that she needed to be more productive to make up for it.
Emma Walsh, chief executive of advocacy group Parents at Work, said she did not consider fixed arrangements to be “flexible”.
“The true definition of flexible work is that it should be flexible,” Ms Walsh said. “It should mean I have ability to work anyplace, anytime, anywhere, based on what the work requires of me and my other commitments.”
Parents at Work’s National Working Families Report 2019 revealed half of parents are able to flex their work hours and time. Two out of three said employers were less supportive of flexible working for men than women.
Caitlin Fitzsimmons is a senior writer for The Sun-Herald, focusing on social affairs.