A recent survey conducted by UNISON, the UK’s largest union with over 1.3 million members across public services, exposes a pattern of denial of flexible work requests for women employed in crucial public services across the UK.

The findings, based on responses from over 44,000 women working in schools, hospitals, care homes, town halls, police stations, and other key sectors, highlight the challenges faced by women seeking flexibility in their work arrangements.

The survey indicates that three in ten (30%) women who requested flexible working arrangements faced denial, showcasing a significant issue within the public sector. The denials appear to be inconsistent, rigid, and lacking imagination, according to UNISON. Among the women who were denied flexibility, a quarter (25%) reported experiencing multiple rejections of their requests.

Motivations for Flexibility – and Denials

Analysis of the data reveals that 47% of respondents sought flexibility for a better work-life balance, while 37% did so to prioritize their mental health. Additionally, 36% of women requested flexibility to accommodate childcare needs, and 29% sought it for reasons related to physical health.

Employers provided a range of explanations for denying flexible work requests. Forty-two percent (42%) argued that it would impact the quality of service, while 28% cited insufficient colleagues to cover duties. Additionally, 20% of women were denied flexibility on the grounds that it might prompt similar requests from colleagues. A further 15% received no reason at all.

Upcoming Legal Changes

Starting from April, a new flexible-working law will be implemented in England, Scotland, and Wales, granting employees the statutory right to request flexible working from their first day of employment, eliminating the current six-month waiting period. While UNISON sees this as a positive step, the union advocates for further measures to ensure meaningful access to flexible working.

One in four (25%) women surveyed expressed that the new law did not go far enough, and a significant majority (58%) believe there should be an automatic right to flexible working. UNISON General Secretary Christina McAnea emphasizes the need for a more proactive approach to flexible working, stating, “The right to work flexibly from day one would be beneficial for staff and employers alike, and help bring workplaces into the 21st century.”

Individual Struggles Highlighted

Women shared personal stories of struggles with flexible working, including cases of immediate rejection of requests, suggestions to use annual leave, resignations, and even purchasing personal IT equipment to work differently.

Helen, a specialist nurse and single mother of three, was saw her employer deny multiple requests for flexible work. She said, “I had to go down a pay band to get some flexibility, which put me and my family in financial difficulty. I was told if they allowed me to work flexibly they’d have to do the same for others. But others aren’t in my situation. I’m a survivor of domestic violence and have no family support. The process was awful and I was made to feel like a massive inconvenience. Now I don’t want to be a nurse any more and am looking for a new job in retail. I’ve had to take time off because of the stress and anxiety I experienced. It shouldn’t be like this as I do love my job.”

UNISON is urging employers to include flexible-working options in job adverts to promote a more inclusive approach to work arrangements.