Flexi-phobia: one in five dare not ask about flexible working options

Over one in five (21%) UK private sector employees – equivalent to 5.5m nationally¹ – are too afraid to discuss flexible working with their boss.

  • 5.5m workers in the private sector are afraid of asking for flexible working as they expect their employer to say ‘no’ 
  • Reluctance comes despite employees having the legal right to make a request to their employer for greater flexibility in their job
  • A third (34%) of businesses don’t offer flexible working options
  • Two in three (65%) businesses expect the private sector workforce to be working more flexibly by 2022
  • There are clear employee retention benefits for businesses through flexible working - almost two thirds (63%) of employees are more likely to stay with an employer who offers this

The findings come despite employees having the legal right to make a ‘statutory application’ to their employer to change their working pattern . Those aged 35-49 are the most likely to refrain from exercising this right despite the challenge some in this age group may face with juggling work and family life: nearly one in four (24%) shy away from starting a conversation for fear of rejection.

Despite the widespread fear of asking to change their work arrangements, of those employees (54%) who have specifically initiated a conversation, the vast majority (79%) have had their request accepted, as almost two in three private sector businesses (64%) say they already offer the opportunity for flexible working. Such findings suggest a potential disconnect between employees’ expectations of what their employers will allow, and the greater freedom that is actually available to them.

The fourth edition of Aviva’s Working Lives report – which examines the attitudes and experiences of employers and employees on issues affecting the present and future of the UK workplace – suggests there are clear business benefits to flexible working for both employers and employees.

In fact, two in three employers (65%) think the private sector workforce will work more flexibly in five years’ time and over half (51%) of all private sector employees say they already  do so, either regularly or occasionally, within their role.

Improved business performance, productivity and happiness Aviva’s research highlights clear business benefits for those employers who are willing – and able – to embrace flexible working. More than half (51%) of businesses reported it increases productivity and more than two thirds (68%) believe it makes their employees happier.

Flexible working also helps with retention and recruitment with almost two thirds (63%) of employees admitting they are more likely to stay with an employer who offers it, and when it comes to hiring the best talent, more than one in three (36%) employees identify flexible working as a deal breaker when considering a new job.

Such views chime with staff who currently adopt flexible working patterns, as almost two in five (37%) cite increased happiness as one of the top three outcomes from working flexibly. One in three (34%) also identify being able to more effectively manage their responsibilities outside of work as one of the top three outcomes.

Table 1: Top flexible working options

  Type of flexible working options most valued by employees
 Working from home  23%
 Option to work longer hours over shorter number of days  22%
 Option to work varying / flexible hours each day across the week  19%

Gareth Hemming, director of SME insurance at Aviva UK, said: “Technological innovation is presenting new ways for businesses to serve their customers and support growth objectives. It also offers the potential for businesses to evolve how they interact with customers outside of core working hours.

“Such change means businesses may need to rethink the way their employees work and should consider the benefits flexible working could bring in meeting business goals. It can also support employees looking to manage their work-life balance better as they juggle work with busy lives, looking after family young and old, managing health or even wanting more time to pursue other interests.  

“Whilst flexible working may not be a practical option for all businesses they may still be able to introduce some degrees of flexibility – even on an ad hoc basis that may be beneficial.

“Flexible working patterns are becoming increasingly common and businesses are predicting this trend will grow over the next five years. Indeed many businesses have already adapted their operations – and a number have said they are considering it for the future as they recognise the benefits to both employer and employee.  “The fact that our research suggests some employees are too afraid to ask for flexible working options suggests there is still some work to be done to create an open culture where employees can feel able to have conversations with their employers.”

The full Working Lives report can be seen here.

- ENDS -

Instinctif Partners: Jordan Campbell and Katy Chambers: 0207 427 1400 / 07581 628825 / or aviva@instinctif.com 
Aviva Press Office: Sally Richards 01603 684225 sally.richards@aviva.com

Aviva’s spokesperson: Gareth Hemming, Director of SME Insurance at Aviva UK, is available for comment and broadcast interview  


The Aviva Working Lives report was designed and produced by Aviva and Instinctif Partners in association with ICM Unlimited. 500 private sector employers and 2000 private sector employees were interviewed in Q1 2017 as part of the 2017 Working Lives report. In total, 1500 private sector employers and 6000 private sector employees were interviewed in three waves to produce the second, third and fourth editions of the report in Q1 2013, Q1 2016 and Q1 2017. All interviews were conducted online and the sample was targeted to ensure a comprehensive cross-section of the UK working population. For the purposes of this report, a ‘small business’ is a company with 0-49 employees, a ‘medium company’ has 50-249 employees and a ‘large business’ is 250 or more employees.

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