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Monday 02 September 2019

Why we need Flex for All: Ben's story

If we want a country that works for everyone, we need lots of different people working in public service: individuals who will bring their own experiences and insight to policy creation, and who will make sure the whole UK public is represented in the decision-making process – not just those who work fixed hours. This is why the FDA is proud to support the Flex for All campaign.

To explain the importance of flexible working, Ben Willcocks – the Deputy Director of the Department for Exiting the EU's (DExEu) Parliamentary Team – has shared his story with us. After years of struggling with inflammatory arthritis, he finally has working arrangements that allow him to preserve his health and develop his career.

For much of my time in the civil service, flexible working meant that if work needed doing, I had to be flexible. Dinner with friends? Cancelled. Trip to the cinema? Postponed. The culture of some departments, particularly in the more "glamorous" directorates, was of long hours and hitting deadlines come what may. Having come from the private sector, I saw no reason to challenge these norms, particularly when I joined the Fast Stream and the expectations increased further still.

In the background, I was fighting the latest battle in a lifelong struggle with ill-health. From childhood, I had experienced intense, overwhelming pain in my shoulder, which for years was ascribed to a rugby injury. It was only in my late-20s, just as my career in the civil service was beginning, that I was diagnosed with Hench-Rosenberg Syndrome, a rare form of inflammatory arthritis. By then, the pain I had been experiencing was in every joint, and was starting to impact my ability to do my job. In each new post, I had the same conversation about how the condition affected me, and what I might need by way of support.

My experiences with line managers run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. From some, I have had sympathy, care, and support. From others, barely-concealed irritation – one such Manager told me: “I’m sorry, I simply don’t have the bandwidth to deal with this”. As the condition worsened, I moved onto increasingly powerful medication to deal with it. Three hours each day commuting, and ever more demanding jobs, started to take their toll and the frequency of serious flare-ups increased, leading to more and more days absent.

I should say something about the impact of the condition. Attacks of this particular variety of arthritis come and go without warning, attacking one joint or several, and last anything from a few hours to a few weeks. At worst, I am unable to walk, fasten buttons, or open doors, and sleep becomes a rare commodity as the pain wakes me through the night. The immuno-suppresants, designed to alleviate the condition, leave me vulnerable to every bug and virus.

At a succession of different departments, I was referred to Occupational Health, whose reports in every case merely echoed what I already knew, and had already told my managers about the impact of my condition. Then, a few years ago, I was forced to step down from a Deputy Director post I loved because I simply couldn’t cope with the rigours of travelling across the country to visit my staff in their various locations. Unsurprisingly, my confidence was shaken severely.

In February of this year, I took up a grade 6 post in DExEU. I had a discussion with my line manager about the condition even before I took up the post. The support I have received from him, from my amazing team, and from DExEU more widely has been phenomenal. Flexible working, from my experience, is in the DNA of the department. I asked to work from home on a Wednesday, specifically in order to provide a break in the middle of the week from commuting. This was approved instantly, and my line manager allows me to work further days from home on an ad-hoc basis if I am not able to walk to the station. This is done without fuss, and the change it has made to my working week is immeasurable. Similar patterns are in place across the department, which contributes in no small way to the exceptional culture of DExEU.

The Flex for All campaign seeks to change the law, so that employers need to outline their flexible working options in adverts (or justify why the job can't be done flexibly). This would give staff the right to work flexibly, as advertised, from their first day on the job.

To lend your support and get involved in the campaign, sign the Flex for All petition.
9th Feb 2024
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