New research shows that the UK’s lowest-paid workers are hitting a wall of bad bosses when they attempt to secure flexible working patterns that fit in with the demands of their domestic lives.

According to a TUC survey of 1,000 low-paid mothers and fathers, a significant group say that their requests for more flexible hours have backfired – indeed, 42% said that they felt penalised for even asking. Individuals in this category complained that after they had filed requests for alternative working arrangements, they were subsequently left with either fewer hours, worse shifts – or no jobs at all.

In addition, more than half (58%) of parents working in low-paid sectors such as retail, hospitality or social care said that they didn’t know which rights at work they were entitled to. Almost two in three (63%) were unaware of their right to unpaid parental leave.

As a consequence, half (49%) weren’t using one or more of their legal rights to time off.

TUC general secretary Frances Grady said: “Too many workplaces expect mums and dads to forget all about their kids as soon as they walk through the door … Many parents fear losing shifts, taking unpaid leave or being viewed badly at work if they need time off to look after their kids. And it is shocking that some mums and dads are being stopped from taking their children to hospital when they are sick.”

In the view of CIPD head of public policy Ben Wilmott, flexibility has become almost a luxury item, accessible only to certain levels of the workforce. “Flexible working can be quite exclusive – home working is often too restricted to managers and senior professionals,” he said. “Employers should absolutely be looking at the practices that they have [to] make them more inclusive.”

What should bosses know that would compel them to be more open and forthcoming with requests for flexible work?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The fundamental question to address when you’re talking about flexible working is, ‘Who does the flexibility suit?’ And the answer has to be both parties. So the employer has to get a more committed, longer-term employee, and the employee knows that they’re appreciated and recognised as a whole person, with a series of demands on their time that aren’t solely work related.”

Cooper explains: “From an employers’ point of view, one of the great things about agreeing flexible working patterns with someone who’s worked with you for a while is that you know they’re going to stay with you. They’re not, after all the discussions, likely to go looking for another job because they’re happy not only with the one they’ve got, but the fact that you responded to their request. This makes your project planning that much easier.

“Some staff will actually want to do fewer hours. In the employer’s mind, that may feel like an inconvenience, which may tempt them into a knee-jerk reaction: ‘No, you can’t do that, because we need you now for 40 hours per week.’ But if you compare that relatively short-term inconvenience to the much longer-term problem of losing that individual’s loyalty, commitment and skills, it really is much more manageable than it first seems.”

Cooper adds: “Unless the flexibility benefits both sides, it’s not going to work. But as CIPD’s own research has shown, staff whose requests are met with an almost faceless disregard will feel that they have been unfairly discriminated against. They will also be left with the impression that the problem of combining their work and home lives has been left solely to them, which will clearly exacerbate stress.”

For further thoughts on managing upwards, check out these learning resources from the Institute