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Leona O'Neill: Parents deserve better flexible working conditions

A new survey indicates that working parents are being let down by their employers in terms of accommodating childcare needs. Leona O'Neill meets the local business-owner behind the study who's pushing for changes and leading by example

It's tough to balance your career with parental responsibilities - but employers can help by being more flexible

PARENTS deserve better flexible working conditions: that is the view of one retail boss who is urging Northern Ireland's employers to put in place better conditions after a poll of 3,000 people showed that 98 per cent agreed with her.

Caroline O'Neill, a mother-of-two and owner of DIGG Childrenswear in Dungannon, decided to conduct the poll after hearing many parents comment on the lack of flexibility recently, particularly as we all struggle to get back into the school routine after the summer.

She says she was shocked at the responses, which clearly demonstrate how a distinct lack of flexibility in workplaces throughout Northern Ireland is only adding to the stress of family life.

"With families getting the kids ready for back to school, I've had so many conversations with parents who have said that their employer's lack of flexibility only adds to the pressure and stress of family life," she told me.

"I have four employees and, as a mother-of-two, soon to be three children, I am proud to work the boutique's rotas around my employees' availability and their family commitments. I think it is one of the main reasons why I have retained staff.

"Last week, it was my son's first day of P1 and he didn't want me to leave, by the time I got him settled I was 20 minutes late opening my store. While this is not ideal, and the first time in 12 years that I have opened late, it made me so thankful that I didn't have the added stress of getting into trouble at work for being late as I'm very aware that not all bosses are understanding."

Later that morning, after sharing what had happened on her social media platform, Caroline says she was inundated with people telling their stories.

"I love interacting with my customers on my DIGG Childrenswear Instagram account so I ran a couple of polls to try and get a better understanding of how many of my followers were offered flexible working and the response was quite worrying.

"The comments showed that some employers are very understanding and offer flexible working to accommodate family life, for example a number of people said they were able to start at 9.30am to enable them to drop the kids off to school.

"But a lot of comments showed that this is definitely not the case in all workplaces. One lady said her boss wouldn't speak to her for a week if she was late and purposely makes things difficult for her on the occasions she is late.

"Another lady said the lack of flexibility was why she left her career and the nail on the head for her was when a last-minute appointment came up in work and she explained to her boss that she couldn't work late that day as she had to pick her kids up from crèche before 6pm.

"Her boss made her go back to work after she picked her children up – despite a colleague offering to take the appointment for her which the boss refused. She cried the whole way home, my heart just went out to her. But the reality is, there are so many in that situation which is adding unnecessary stress to people's lives."

Caroline says that in her poll 98 per cent of people agreed that employers should offer more flexible working conditions for parents. She urged businesses and organisations across Northern Ireland to look at their current policies to see what they can do better to support their employees in terms of more flexible working conditions.

Many employers may argue that parents should not get special privileges, but parents are not looking for an easy ride. If they start early, they usually leave late or work through their lunch hour. It's flexibility people want, not special treatment. Parents often face resentment from colleagues also, if they request a later start.

I know many mothers who have had to leave a career that they love due to the lack of flexibility in their workplaces, or being treated differently after asking for reduced hours.

Parenting is a challenging enough occupation. What we don't want is to make it so difficult that parents feel they can't work at all. A little leeway and understanding is all that is needed.

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