Despite these changes, there is still a “flexibility stigma” – men report being reluctant to ask for flexibility for fear of the impact this will have on both their career and earnings. The 100% Project, a not-for-profit organisation that focuses on gender inequality as it negatively impacts women and men in the workplace, says that its “Men at Work” research showed that while 76 per cent of respondents said there were times when they needed flexible work, only 27 per cent had requested it.
The ‘walk of shame’
Dr Sarah Cotton from Transitioning Well says that “despite the rhetoric of flexibility policies, the reality of ‘the walk of shame’ is still very much alive and well in corporate Australia. Many men feel that they are being watched and judged when they leave their desks to pick up a child from school or stay home to care for a child who may be unwell.”
The underuse of the Australian government’s two weeks “dad and partner pay” is another litmus test. While new fathers commonly take a few days of paternity leave directly after the birth of a baby, an OECD report shows that Australian men only account for one in 50 people using paid parental leave, compared with two in five in some Scandinavian countries. Almost as important, many men also report being unaware of the options that are available to them, with the “Australian Work and Life Index (AWALI)” report showing that only 42 per cent of men with preschoolers were aware of their right to request flexibility.
In addition to the barriers of flexibility uptake, it is also important that employers understand the increased safety risks for men as they integrate the early days of fatherhood with employment. For example, a research study by Southern Cross University shows that fathers of newborns are 36 per cent more likely to have a near miss at work and 26 per cent more likely to have a near miss on the road due to fatigue. Distress among fathers has also been shown to be 1.5 times higher than men in the general population, with estimates that one in 20 men experience depression during their partner’s pregnancy and one in 10 postnatally.
With such powerful statistics readily at hand, it is essential that businesses lead the conversation around flexible work options for fathers and have the necessary supports in place to promote a change in perception and allow men to be upfront about their needs as both a worker and parent. With “Men Get Flexible”, a study by the independent, not-for-profit Diversity Council Australia, showing that 37 per cent of young fathers cite lack of flexibility as a prime consideration for leaving their organisation, “father flex” is no longer just a nice to have.
As a place to start, Cotton suggests a focus on tailored support and driving real change including “an awareness about the types of leave and flexible work arrangements that are available, the importance of leaders walking the talk, and ensuring that ‘father flex’ is not just about the early days of fatherhood but supported across the many seasons of fatherhood, including the first day of school and the teenage years”.
Given the reluctance of men to seek out help, and the lack of screening opportunities available for new fathers, programs such as Transitioning Well’s “Safe to Work DAD” assist in not only identifying areas of potential risk (ie, father fatigue, work-life conflict and dad stress), but also provide practical strategies to help combat them in a private and confidential way. Research conducted by the Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) suggests that many fathers do not seek help until a concern arises. However, an employer that places resources and strategies directly in front of working parents can encourage new fathers to acknowledge that they may need additional support – and empower them to have these conversations with their workplace and families before they reach crisis point.
It is imperative that businesses continue to remain aware of the challenges faced by fathers, who can struggle to integrate their work and family lives. Employers who advocate for their workers, and foster an environment where men feel comfortable (or better, are encouraged) to request flexible working arrangements, can help to drive change in culture at all levels. “Father flex” is about promoting optimal physical and mental health, and providing fathers with support so that they are able to effectively manage their work and family commitments.
Rachell Bugeja is project administrator at Transitioning Well, which helps shape and support parental leave, work life and mature-age transitions and provides services to fit the needs of organisations and employees.