On 17 October last year, I chaired a table on flexible working and zero hour contracts at The Equality & Human Rights Commission. Invited to that table was Lourdes Walsh, a mother and shift worker in the retail sector. Lourdes brought to life the reality and human cost of shift work and drove home the fact that flexible working is not simply about breaking down the 9-5. This is her story. Please feel free to share and amplify her voice in your own organisation.
My name is Lourdes Walsh and I have been shift working in the retail sector for the last three years. Before my current job I worked multiple zero-hour contracts in the Arts whilst raising my son and maintaining our home.
When we refer to shift work, we tend to mean work hours scheduled outside the usual working day. Often shift work starts early in the morning or late at night.
The night buses and tube services are often worked by parents. Doctors and nurses, many of those parents. Those working in adult social care, hospitality, in late night restaurants and dawn opening supermarkets.
These parents often work through the night, parent through the day, through nursery drop off and school pick up, through spelling tests and spaghetti dinners, and back to work. Through the night. Most may grab a few hours sleep, some won’t. Some will go to work, exhaustion overhanging from the previous nights, behind a wheel, measuring medicine, caring for the sick and vulnerable.
I’m quite fortunate in that my current shift pattern allows me to bring my child to school – but it never allows me to collect him. My working day finishes at 7pm meaning that childcare is the single, most stressful bane of my life. The expensive, over subscribed childcare options available for a school age child finish at 6pm. I am regularly beholden to the kindness of others, reliant on the stretched patience of other late arriving parents, those not quite as late as me. My conversations with my child’s teacher do not consist of praise worthy anecdotes, but logistics of pick-up passwords and familiar faces at the gate. Shift work is often minimum wage, my job is. I have been priced out of the nanny, childminder market.
The anxiety this induces in my child, quite honestly, is something I don’t, I cannot afford to, think about.
I’ve previously worked zero-hour contracts. It was the worst period of employment in my working life. I was engulfed in debt. Staying permanently contracted is my number one priority. I’ve been known to come in early, leave late, work extra days. I worked weekends for two years for fear that saying no, even to spend that time with my child, would lead to losing my job. This fear has left me completely iced out of any conversations on or around flexible working.
I have spoken to my manager about needing to leave early, change days, the need for allowances for summer holidays and sickness. I end up retreating at the detriment of my family, our life and its quality. We are overdue dental check-ups and eye tests; his swimming instructor spends more quality time with my son than I. It’s difficult to get any time together in which I’m not planning my next move, an infinitely stressful game of chess, always trying to remain two steps ahead. Just two days ahead.
This Summer I asked my manager if I could work more flexibly. Less weekends, a 5pm finish. It would mean that I could collect my child from Summer camp. It was refused. They don’t do split shifts. I work alone, I don’t have a lunch break, I don’t sit down. I am tired and irritable, stressed and resentful. Anxiety is rising. Morale is down.
This refusal, this lack of understanding, has meant that sometimes, I’ve had to bring my child into work. Hidden him in a back office, barely bigger than a cupboard.
It was the last thing I wanted to do. If he could have been anywhere else, he would have been. If it could have worked any other way I would have made sure it did. I don’t want my child at work with me. No-one wants their child at work with them. But all mothers, all parents, want what’s best for their child and that means providing financially. That means working.
I was reported for bringing my kid to work. I wasn’t asked what could be done so it didn’t ever need to happen, I wasn’t called in to discuss why or find resolutions. The response was *shrug* don’t bring your kid to work.
Just to reiterate, it was the last thing I wanted to do. If he could have been anywhere else, he would have been. If it could have worked any other way I would have made sure it did. No-one wants their child at work with them. Being listened to, being included, having me in the room, would have made it so the situation never would have arisen. I felt humiliated, weak. I feel vulnerable and embarrassed. I feel like less of a parent.
In all honesty, without flexible working I have to seriously consider on a weekly basis, whether work, the impact it is having on my mental health, my quality of life, and increasingly on my child, is worth it.
Working flexibly in retail, working flexibly in a shift work environment, can be as easy as listening to your employees, your team, those on the front line of business and being open to a conversation. ‘How can we make it so that you work best for us’ is the question employers should be asking. Job security, job positivity is great for business, for productivity, for profit.
Flexible working cultivates a productive, loyal workforce, employee retention and development is good for business. It is this adaption of skills and inclusivity that creates an active economy.
The demographics of the workforce are changing, we now work until we are older than ever before and it is not just the children we care for that we must think about. With working later, comes living longer. Raising children gives way to caring for elderly parents and relatives.
I am entering this conversation as a single parent of one, but I look at society and can recognise flexible working is not just important to me and my family, but that flexibility at work is vitally important for all workers, at whatever age and at all levels of income.
What began as just a grumbling at ground level has led to a conversation in this room. It’s important it doesn’t stop here. Flexible working that works for parents, parents like me and like you, works for everyone.