CEPAR Chief Investigator Marian Baird and researcher Alison Williams attended the 8th International Community, Work & Family Conference in Valletta, Malta in May 2019. Here’s some snippets of the latest research from Europe and the USA on flexible working, family-friendly work practices, employer support for working carers and employee engagement – all topics of vital interest for many mature aged workers and employers. (Please note: These ‘take-aways’ of the presentations are our own and not those of the presenters.)
Mature workers may be keen to seek more flexible work arrangements because they are responsible for caring for family members or because they are moving to another phase of their lives which may not prioritise full time work. Over 20% of part-time workers in Australia aged 45+ prefer to work in this way, much more so than other age cohorts (Reserve Bank, 2017).
Fifty six per cent of Australian carers are also workers (ABS, 2015). The average age of an unpaid primary carer in Australia is 55 – and there are 2.7 million unpaid carers in Australia (ABS, 2015).
This type of care is usually referred to in the literature as ‘informal care’.
Some are caring for children, some for elders, some for disabled dependents and increasingly many are ‘sandwich carers’ (Carers Australia, 2014), with multiple caring loads. Combining this care with work requires some flexibility and for employers to be receptive to the need for this flexibility.
Does working flexibly relieve time-pressured workers?
One of the debates about flexible work is whether it increases the pressure on workers who are having to manage the growing demands of the modern workplace. Dutch researcher Tanja van der Lippe is exploring whether this is the case, in particular whether managing work/family conflict is affected primarily by the organisation or by the individual employees. Individual employees tend to manage this conflict as either ‘segmentors’, who prefer to keep the two domains separate as possible, or ‘integrators’ who are happy to remove the barriers and work flexibly at different times and places. Work and family conflict is also affected by the flexibility of the worker’s colleagues.
Van der Lippe’s research used data from the European Sustainable Workforce Survey of team-based employees in nine European countries. She measured variables such as: the employee’s time pressure, how often the employee worked at home; flexible work times; support of colleagues; managerial support; and integration of work/home life.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she found that integrators are more likely to work from home and to use flexible start/finish times. Overall, flexitime had a negative effect on time pressure, given that work spreads outside of standard working hours, but unexpectedly, so does providing more managerial support: the reasons for this are not clear yet. Van der Lippe also found that working non-flexibly leads to less time pressure for women who are integrators.
She concludes that flexitime and flexiplace generates extra time pressure only for integrators and more managerial support is needed for this group of workers working in this way.
Meanwhile Heejung Chun from the University of Kent (UK) has been exploring the effect of workplace culture on workers’ uptake of flexible working arrangements. Workers have to contend with the so-called ‘flexibility stigma’ (where those who work flexibly are seen as less committed) and an ideal worker culture (where long hours are seen as normal).
Her preliminary research has found that while working flexibly can alleviate work and family conflict for those working in organisations with a long hours culture, their uptake of these flexible work arrangements is more disadvantageous to them in such organisations.
Researchers in Germany are also looking at who makes use of flexible work options, in particular teleworking. Yvonne Lott and Anja Abendroth, from the Hans-Böckler Foundation examine the effects of an ideal worker culture and whether teleworking is seen as normal. The two significant factors they found were the perceived non-usability of teleworking and perceived cultural barriers. Mostly men in the production sectors reported they could not use telework due to their perception that it was unavailable. Cultural barriers to teleworking in workplaces were more important for women and were more important in workplaces with a strong ideal worker norm.
Insights for employers of mature workers: offering flexitime and flexiplace options may not suit all workers. How the work is organised, what kind of support is provided by supervisors and the individual’s approach to work integration (segmentor or integrator) are all vitally important.
Employer support for working carers
Associate Professor Lisa Stewart and Avelina Charles from California State University, Monterey Bay, are researching whether employees are likely to disclose or conceal their caring responsibilities to their employers. There is growing evidence that employees who disclose caring obligations are more at risk of being dismissed, reduced career advancement and restricted social interactions at work (Columbo et al. 2011). The decision to disclose is centred around flexibility and stigmatisation. The stigmatisation may be real – directly or indirectly experienced by the employee – or it may be perceived and internalised.
In a small group study, they interviewed 19 predominantly female, mature aged employees – the median age was 52 – who were either caring for disabled family members (11 employees) or an older adult (8 employees).
Stewart and Charles’ subjects reported that the positive outcomes of disclosing their care responsibilities were emotional support from their co-workers, help with their work tasks, access to flexible work and access to formal supports from their employer. The negatives, on the other hand were equity concerns, scrutiny, co-worker resentment and fear of losing their jobs (and in the US context, fear of losing employer-funded health insurance).
The subjects developed ‘communication and negotiation competence’: whether they were caring for disabled or older relatives, they all made careful decisions on who, what and when to tell their co-workers and employers, based on their working relationships, their job function and the organisation’s work culture. Carers with disabled dependents also factored in their prior stigmatising experiences.
CEPAR Stream 3’s research is focused on mature workers and organisations: how they can thrive and how organisations can benefit. It is helpful to know why mature workers continue to work past the age when they can retire, but to date there has not been a lot of research into the reasons why.
Dr Schlomit Manor from Western Galilee College, Israel, has been studying why physicians continue working once they have retired – 25% of physicians are aged over 65 in Israel. Dr Manor conducted structured interviews with 20 doctors who had to retire from public hospitals, but were now working in private practice. This is very much forced retirement, as 85% said they wouldn’t have retired if hadn’t reached the compulsory retirement age.
She found that for doctors, loss of identity was critical – being a doctor is a central component of their identity that overshadows any other identities. Doctors also feared life without work – they experienced this as an emptiness and for many, having spent many long hours working, they had no leisure activities. Some of the female doctors were up front that they wanted to keep working to avoid caring for grandchildren.
Insights for mature workers: Dr Manor suggests that keeping working functions as a way of constructing an intermediate identity – that of ‘working retiree’ – while retaining a professional identity, which could be called a ‘hybrid’ retiree.
Organisational support and improving engagement
Prof Sarah Mazzuchelli of the Catholic University of Milan is looking at whether employer support improves employee engagement in an environment of age-discrimination.
Mazzuchelli theorises that, according to Organisational Support Theory (Eisenberger, et al., 1986; Rhoades & Eisenberger, 2002), when workers perceive they are valued and supported, they will have an emotional and psychological attachment to their organisation. Similarly, using Social Identity Theory (Ashforth and Mael, 1989) she considers that the more positive an organisation’s social image, the more an employee will identify with their organisation. Support by an employer will be perceived as a signal of the organisation’s interest in its employees, which under the Reciprocity Norm (Gouldner, 1960: if one party offers something, the other party will reciprocate) will lead to higher involvement by employees.
She surveyed 12,746 workers aged over 50 years, working in 33 different organisations, asking them about perceived organisational support, their involvement at work, organisational identification and age discrimination.
She found that organisational identification plays an important role in an employee’s work involvement and that organisational support is able to increase that involvement. However, age discrimination reduces the positive effect of support and produces negative work outcomes.
Insights for employers of mature workers: Mazzuchelli suggests that employers should invest in support policies to improve employees’ involvement, take steps to change age stereotypes and ban practices which exclude employees based on age.
Family-friendly work practices
While there is increased demand for employers to provide family friendly working environments, there is also the question of whether the wider national context impacts on employers preparedness to do so.
Anna Kurowska from the University of Warsaw, Poland, in conjunction with researchers from Germany, is looking at two different country environments: Poland, which has a familialised, gendered care regime (i.e primarily private households, where women provide care to family members) and Germany, where the welfare state and/or organisations assist workers with their family caring responsibilities. She hypothesised that family friendly practices will be stronger in a de-familialised/less gendered care regime (Germany) compared to a familiarised/gendered care regime (Poland)
Prior research has shown that in de-familialised environments there is more pressure on employers to provide family friendly practices because of social expectation and ‘a sense of entitlement’ among employees” (den Dulk 2012). Additionally as the number of female workers increases in an organisation, there is a stronger link to employers providing family friendly practices in a de-familialised care regime (Lyness, Kropf 2005).
Kurowska and her colleagues analysed publicly available reports and information for 44 German companies and 18 Polish companies and found evidence that the country context does indeed matter: in Germany, the de-familialised/less gendered care regime, there is a positive link between the share of female employees and the provision of work family benefits provided by organisations, whereas there is no link in the familialised/ gendered care regime (Poland).
Insights for employers of older workers: Australia is more similar to the German de-familiased regime, with all levels of government providing services for older Australians. This research suggests organisations will continue to need to assist employees with their caring responsibilities and that employees will increasingly view this as something organisations should do.
We hope you have enjoyed these latest research ‘bites’ collected by the CEPAR Stream 3 research team.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2015). 4430.0 – Disability, Ageing and Carers, Australia: Summary of Findings, 2015.
Carers Australia (2012). Carers caught in the ‘sandwich generation’. Media release, 28 September.
Chung, H. “The role of organisational culture in shaping who uses flexible working arrangements, and its outcomes. Symposium: Flexible working: the role of context. 8th International Community, Work & Family Conference, Valletta 23-25 May 2019.
Kurowska, A., Joecks, J. and Pull, K. “Is the push for employer-provided family friendly practices context-dependent?” The roles of career strategy and employer support in individual work-life experiences. 8th International Community, Work & Family Conference, Valletta 23-25 May 2019.
Lott, Y. and Abendroth, A. The use of and experiences with telework: Barriers and disadvantages in an ideal worker culture? Symposium: Flexible working: the role of context. 8th International Community, Work & Family Conference, Valletta 23-25 May 2019.
Manor, S. “Retiring with a white coat on: Physicians working post-retirement.” Current and emerging trends in ageing and work. 8th International Community, Work & Family Conference, Valletta 23-25 May 2019.
Mazzuchelli, S. “The importance of organizational support in improving engagement in age discriminatory contexts.” The roles of career strategy and employer support in individual work-life experiences. 8th International Community, Work & Family Conference, Valletta 23-25 May 2019.
Reserve Bank of Australia (2017). The rising share of part time employment. Bulletin September Quarter 2017. Retrieved from: https://www.rba.gov.au/publications/bulletin/2017/sep/3.html
Stewart, L. and Charles, A. Disclosure or Concealment: How employees caring for dependent older adults and those with disabilities manage the communication boundaries at work. Approaches and Strategies for Special Needs Caregivers. 8th International Community, Work & Family Conference, Valletta 23-25 May 2019.
Van der Lippe, T. Does flexibility at the workplace lead to more or less time pressure? Symposium: Flexible working: the role of context. 8th International Community, Work & Family Conference, Valletta 23-25 May 2019.
Prof Marian Baird AO