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Editor’s View: Flexible working for parents could halt talent drain in theatres

Attendees at a Parents in Performing Arts symposium. Photo: Abby Warren
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Job shares and other flexible working arrangements are an increasingly common feature of working culture. Recent reports show that graduates are placing a greater importance on work-life balance than previous generations and expecting companies to offer flexible working options that go beyond what they are statutorily obliged to supply.

Under employment law, an employee can request flexible working if they have worked for the same organisation for six months. The employer has to deal with the request ‘in a reasonable manner’, but can reject it for a range of accepted reasons, including if it meant the business would incur extra costs or if there were a detrimental impact on performance. It is a delicate balancing act between the needs of the individual and the business.

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For actors, it is rather more complicated. Most are self-employed and don’t have access to these rights. But, unlike many self-employed people, actors cannot set their working hours.

While this might not be a problem at the start of their careers, it can be tricky when balanced against caring responsibilities. Research into the off-stage workforce I helped conduct last year for the Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre strongly suggested that a lack of flexible working in the sector was resulting in a mid-career talent drain: people dropped out of the industry as they were starting families.

Anecdotally, one hears of the same thing happening with performers – especially actresses – when they have had children.

Even though employers don’t have a legal obligation to offer flexible working to self-employed workers, there are good reasons to consider it. These arrangements can engender loyalty or might even be a way of keeping costs down as part of a wider negotiation over a performer’s remuneration package.

It won’t work in all cases, but producers should expect these requests to become increasingly common. They should be thinking of developing a set procedure for considering them, agents should be thinking about how to negotiate such arrangements on behalf of their clients and the unions should be looking to introduce flexible working clauses into the next round of pay negotiations.

Government guidelines on flexible working for employees might provide a helpful starting point for all parties, but the situation will only work in the long term if audiences warm to the idea and producers can make it work financially.

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk

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