Mothers working part-time take up more unpaid work when given control over their own schedule, a new study reports. The authors say that the findings should draw our attention to how part-time and flexible work schedules are wrongly perceived today.

Lego employees.

One of these workers is not like the others. And the others don’t like it.
Image via Pixabay.

New research from the University of Kent and the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam found that both men and women who can set their own hours end up doing more unpaid overtime. Mothers working part-time put in the most unpaid overtime in this scenario, they add.

“Increasing numbers of companies and governments are introducing flexible working, that is giving workers control over when and where they work, as a less costly option to help working families manage work and family demands compared to, for example, paid leave,” the paper explains.

The team drew on the Understanding Society surveys carried out between 2010-2015 to analyze how three patterns of flexible working impact an employee’s workload. The working schedules the team looked at are flexitime, teleworking, and schedule control. On average, they say, UK men work 2.2 unpaid overtime hours, while UK women put in roughly 1.9 unpaid hours per week, respectively.

Under flexitime-type programs, workers have a set number of weekly hours, but they have the option of picking a schedule that suits them best (from 8 am to 4 pm, or from 10 am to 6 pm, for example). Teleworking allows employees to work from home on a regular basis. Schedule control is arguably the most flexible of the flexible work programs — employees are allowed to work whenever they want, for as long or little as they need, to complete their tasks.

Subscribe to our newsletter and receive our new book for FREE
Join 50,000+ subscribers vaccinated against pseudoscience
Download NOW
By subscribing you agree to our Privacy Policy. Give it a try, you can unsubscribe anytime.

For the first two types of flexible work programs, the team couldn’t find an increase in unpaid overtime hours (above that 2.2 / 1.9 baseline level). However, they couldn’t detect a decrease in unpaid overtime hours either.

“Other studies have shown that certain types of flexible working, such as teleworking, are likely to increase work-family conflict rather than reduce it,” the authors explain.

Those in the schedule control group, however, did see a (significant) increase in overtime. On average, men put in around one more hour, and women without children roughly 40 more minutes, over the baseline value, per week. The team notes that full-time working mothers didn’t work any more unpaid time, but part-time working mothers put in around 20 minutes extra (so one hour in total) more each week. The team says that flexible workers’ tendency to work harder and longer — a phenomenon coined ‘the autonomy (control) paradox’ — has already been documented.

As to why, the researchers believe this comes down — in part — to how such working schedules are perceived. Part-time working mothers, they write, may feel the need to work longer hours to compensate for real or perceived stigma from co-workers — especially when working atypical hours. They support this hypothesis with previous research on the stigma felt by part-time workers; around 40% of which believe working part-time had a negative impact on their career progression.

They also write that part-time working mothers may simply have more opportunities to work overtime compared to full-time working mothers. In the context of the gift exchange theory, they could be working harder and for longer to recciprocate/reward employers for the favorable work program.

“More control over your work is supposed to make life easier for workers, particularly those with children. However, it is clear that for many, blurring the boundaries between work and home life expands work to be longer, even when it is unpaid,” says lead author Dr. Heejung Chung from Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research.

“Employers need to be aware of this and ensure staff are not over-stretching themselves and undoing the benefits of flexible working.’

Dr. Chung also made a point of specifying that their study didn’t show flexible working arrangements lead to reduced work from employees, which flies in the face of popular perceptions. Employers need to be made more aware of this, she says, and tackle the stigma against those working flexible schedules.

The paper “Flexible Working and Unpaid Overtime in the UK: The Role of Gender, Parental and Occupational Status” has been published in the journal Social Indicators Research.