Royal Pharmaceutical Society

Flexible working – why is it so hard to arrange?

by Amandeep Doll, RPS Head of Professional Belonging

In doing this role, a range of people have shared their working experiences with me and at times I hear about the difficulties people face when needing to arrange flexible working patterns or a lack of understanding and empathy around particular needs. One case that has particularly stood out to me was of a pharmacist who has been working for over 20 years but aged 27 had a viral infection she’s never fully recovered from.

Before her illness, she was hugely energetic and hard-working, contributing massively to her team. But her return to work was tough. She looked OK on the outside, but was still unwell and dragging herself around to keep the job she loved. She requested flexible working to help manage her condition, but it was repeatedly denied. She felt that managers didn’t really believe she was ill.

She battled on. It took her six years to get a diagnosis of lupus, which affects the immune system. It made her joints ache and on some mornings she found it difficult to move – but after a few hours she was usually OK and ready to work.

Her employer continued to refuse to accommodate a more flexible working pattern to take account of this. Instead, she either had to take a full day’s sick leave each time, which wasn’t necessary, or use up annual leave to cope. For ten years she’s continued to fulfil her role despite managing a chronic condition and her workload and responsibilities have increased during that time. She’s rightly proud of her achievements and contribution to her team, but has never been granted the flexible working that would make her life easier.

This is just one story. There are plenty of others. Why is flexible working so hard to arrange? Our Action in Belonging, Culture and Diversity group tried to answer this recently.

We all agreed flexible working is a really valuable tool in improving workplace equality and creating a more inclusive culture. It can help people with a fluctuating health condition stay in work with less stress, help carers of all kinds balance their responsibilities, ensure more diverse candidates are considered for roles and reduce the gender pay gap by keeping women in work. 

The need for flexible working ebbs and flows throughout our lives as our responsibilities change. Childcare is probably most often understood as a need for flexibility, but chronic conditions, disability and caring for elderly parents are also a part of many of our lives. Employers who take a holistic view of their employees undoubtedly benefit from very loyal employees. 

The pandemic has certainly forced a change in where and when and how some work is done, and created more trust that outcomes and delivery will be maintained. There’s no reason why many pharmacy roles could not accommodate part-time working, job-sharing, flexitime, compressed and annualised hours, working from home and mobile working.

Leadership is a huge factor. There is such a difference between policies & practice designed to 'stay within the law' and those based on valuing people. I've seen both approaches within the same organisation depending on who is leading a team.

Some employers restrict flexible working on the basis that if it’s not possible for every role in the team, it’s should not be possible for anyone. Having the same rule for everyone doesn’t make it fair and equal for all. People will have different needs and we need to work with individuals to workout what working arrangements will suit their needs. There’s a choice here - to be inclusive, you have to think creatively, consider what’s possible and provide those opportunities to benefit the employees you do have and encourage applications from a more diverse pool of talent. Flexible working should also be available throughout an organisation, so employees who want to work that way can still get right to the top.

At the moment there’s still an unconscious bias to those who are consistently present. It’s harder to manage variability and so many employers default to what’s easier to manage, at the expense of those who don’t fit the full-time working model.

No one should feel guilty about asking for flexible working. We need to create greater equality of access to flexible working to enable a more diverse pool of pharmacists to be included in the workplace and contribute their skills and expertise. Ultimately it’s about making everyone feel they belong.

We want to encourage voices that express the diversity of lived experiences in the profession as part of our inclusion and diversity work. If you’d like to share your story, contact [email protected] or get involved through our ABCD group



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