Section 11: Flexible work

Section 11:
Flexible work

The most common adjustment to work which older workers request from their managers is a change to their working hours. Reasons for this include:

  • A desire for a more satisfying balance between work and relaxation in their lives
  • A chance to open up space in their work routines to enable them to take part in retirement activities (Reynolds, Farrow & Blank, 2012).
  • Caring responsibilities for grandchildren, parents and other family.

The term ‘sandwich carer’ has been used to describe older people (usually, but not always, women) whose caring responsibilities span generations. The term can refer to the fact that those in work are ‘sandwiched’ between their responsibilities in the workplace and the home. Poorly designed work routines can force carers out of employment early, as they find the competing pressures of caring for family members and meeting work demands too difficult to cope with.

Question: Does this sound familiar to you? Are you or is anyone you know in this position? What can be done to address this challenge?

The pros and cons of part-time working

Part-time work is the most common form of flexible working amongst older workers.


  • For many, reducing working hours while continuing in the role that they had been in meets their needs and minimises disruption in their lives.


    • Poorly designed part-time working can increase rather than reduce stress. For example, if an employer reduces working time but doesn’t take away any of the older worker’s tasks, the employee may feel increased pressure to complete their workload in a shorter space of time.

Potential alternatives to part-time working

Flexible work arrangements like flexi-time, annualised hours, and job sharing are all viable alternatives. Job sharing is also a popular way of encouraging inter-generational learning, as older and younger workers can share a job role. For example, the older worker can share their experience of the role while the younger worker might share their knowledge of how to use new technology.

Care workers and working time pressures

Many care workers join the profession because they expect that care work is flexible. While it can be, this also brings its own pressures. These include:

Balancing home and work

Workers believe that they will be able to fit work around their other responsibilities (for example caring responsibilities which they have at home).

Most care work is outside of the normal nine to five work routine. It is understandable that care workers expect to be able to take on work that fits within their schedule (e.g. taking on fewer clients if their responsibilities at home increase).

However not all feel that they have much control over their work routines. A care worker may have set a pattern of work to fit with their work-life balance, but work demands could make it difficult to stick with their patterns. Some care workers talked about having to take shorter lunch breaks or finishing work later in order to make sure that their clients were looked after.

A lack of fixed working hours vs. flexible working

Like many industries, flexible work can be both a benefit and difficulty for those working in social care.

Many are on employment contracts without fixed working hours (so-called zero hour contracts). They are only paid for the time that they have with clients, and this can change from week to week. They often feel that they have little autonomy over how they set their working hours because when they work is governed by when they are called out to jobs.

On the surface, it may seem like they can decide when they work based on accepting or declining jobs. However the reality is that they need enough work for a secure income. That means they must take on jobs even if doing so creates strains in their life outside work. Some care workers on precarious employment contracts worry that declining jobs may lead them being passed over for training or career development opportunities or seeming less committed to their jobs than those working longer hours.

Prejudice against part-time work

Part-time work is sometimes referred to derogatively as the ‘mommy track’ with few opportunities for career progression. However many carers – including many older people – have caring responsibilities for elderly relatives and/or grandchildren who also need flexible work patterns.

Even though older workers or pensioners may have fewer family commitments, their ‘workability’ WA is likely to be reduced. WA is the basis for well-being, and it is influenced by factors related to the individual, the environment and life outside of work.

A checklist for good practice

  • Have you had conversations with employees about their work patterns?
  • Do their work patterns fit within their home and work needs?
  • Are you losing staff because of problems with work-life balance?
  • Do staff feel enabled to have conversations with you about their flexible work need?
  • Are requests met with a view toward seeking an accommodation?
  • Are alternatives offered when requests are declined?
  • What flexible arrangements are on offer in your workplace?
  • Can employees choose from different patterns?
  • Can employees job share a post that may lead to a more qualified and higher paying job?
Question: Work through this checklist for your own organization. What does your organization do well? And what are its weaknesses?

Older workers may be more susceptible to conditions that reduce their ability to work. And yet flexible working hours can support their ability to still perform that work, without causing any physical problems or affecting the quality of the job they are doing.