Flexible work arrangements requires more than lip service

When did it become so taboo to have a life outside of work? When did the glorification of "busy" overwhelm our collective concept of work ethic? And when did coming in early and leaving work late become the hallmark of a "good" employee?

Passions that exist outside of our working life are generally considered secondary to our work lives. Presumably, this is because they don't earn us money (or we'd be doing them full time). And in our capitalist society, we value ourselves and our skills based on how much money we can earn using them and how many cool toys we own as a result.

A couple of years ago, I listened to Judy Heard and Michael Hastings from RMIT deliver a seminar at a conference about the concept of purposeful work and the shift towards recognising contribution as vital to our own sense of fulfillment.

It really highlighted the way in which we exist, physically and psychologically within a "consumer aesthetic" and how this might feed our ambition, but not our need to derive meaning from our lives.

Research shows we spend up to 75 per cent of our lives in work-related activities, which leads us to realise the importance of getting our careers right. But also the impact that meaningless, consumer-driven decisions regarding our daily activities can have on mental health, work engagement and our general sense of purpose and happiness.

Happy workers are generally more engaged, more productive and higher performing workers, so why would we not invest in our staff's right to pursue activities outside of work within a value structure on par with that of work-related activities?

Why would we hold them to a standard that expects them to sacrifice their personal time to devote increasing hours to the office, while minimising the importance of their outside passions and activities as somehow "less than" (or at least, less important than) their work?

Our consumer aesthetic demands we think of the money — we need to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads, after all.

But my point here is, why do we constantly feel like we have to choose between the two? Why is the pursuit of personal interests, the responsibility of family or the exercise of our established rights to leave work on time so often considered to conflict with work values?

With the number of families with both parents working on the rise, the need to innovate the way we think about work is a no-brainer.

In 1981, 50.8 per cent of two-parent families had a parent staying at home, according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

By 2016, that number had dropped to 33.3 per cent. With the number of families with both parents working on the rise, the need to innovate the way we think about work is a no-brainer.

Flexible work arrangements are legislated "possibilities" under the National Employment Standards. Anyone who has been in paid work with their employer for at least 12 months and meets certain criteria, such as being a parent, has the right to ask for flexible work arrangements (including casual employees when projected employment sustainability is expected).

You can seek the opportunity to start work later and finish later in order to drop your child at school, negotiate leave in the school holidays, request working from home options, etc. But while the employer needs to give the written request for flexible work arrangements due consideration, they can reject the request on "reasonable business grounds" which deliberately remain undefined and vague.

Furthermore, many people would fear the repercussions of a rejected request for flexible options through lost promotional opportunities, impact to activity distribution, altering the way the employer views their commitment to their job or even job loss (especially for casual staff).

As long as the focus is on whether the changes to work flexibility remain on how it may disrupt existing business operations, flexible work arrangements as the system currently stands are never going to bridge the gap.

We need to rethink how we approach work distribution and the timeliness of shifts and recognise that the payoffs for the business can far outweigh the inconvenience of disruption through staff service longevity, increased engagement and loyalty.

After all, we aren't employing robots. It's time we valued the whole staff member — not just the parts we can profit from.

Zoë Wundenberg is a careers writer and coach at impressability.com.au