Flexible working at the Royal Free – a view from both sides

Royal free London 300The Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust’s HR Business Partner for Transplantation & Specialist Services Division, Sutopa Sen is also a carer, and explains how flexible working benefits both the organisation and its caring employees. 

Sutopa Sen was working full time when she started caring for her mother seven years ago.  But this meant she needed to work in a way that fitted with her caring responsibilities. So she negotiated compressed hours – a flexible working agreement that she’s since successfully brought with her to the Royal Free London NHS Foundation Trust.

“I do a compressed hours pattern of nine days at work. This means I work ten days over nine days, and I have every second Friday off. On my day off, I try and sort things out that can’t be done at the weekend, like blood tests and going to the optician. I do reach for my phone and check work emails on that Friday, but nothing that takes up too much of my time.”

How the Trust supports carers

As well as being a carer herself, Sutopa supports a division with almost 1,400 staff across a range of teams in the Transplantation and Specialist Services, many of whom have caring responsibilities outside of work. The flexible working policy allows existing staff to apply to work flexibly, which involves a trial period. If successful, the flexible hours can become part of the employee’s terms and conditions.

As Sutopa says, “It isn’t always easy, but it can, and does, work. Some managers can be a little nervous if they haven’t already experienced a particular pattern and need to know that the member of staff is committed to making the pattern work – especially if the team is a  patient-facing team under a lot of pressure. But I’ve seen a noticeable increase in flexible working since I’ve worked at the Trust – which is positive.”

Sutopa also believes that the Trust’s Special Leave policy is integral to supporting caring employees. In practice, Sutopa says that an emergency is normally dealt with in one day, but it’s good for carers to know the support is there, should something significant happen. “It helps people to be transparent which breeds a much better working environment and the relationship between the employer and the employee.”

Negotiating flexible working as a carer

When Sutopa started working for the Trust two years ago, how did she negotiate this in a highly competitive area?

“When I applied for this job, I had an informal chat with my prospective line manager to find out more about the role – it was my first NHS job and I didn’t know much about it. I mentioned to her then that I have this caring arrangement with my mother. I asked if this was something the Trust could support and was told about the Trust’s Flexible Working policy and advised to submit an application if I were to be successful. So, I did the interview and then they offered me the job. I mentioned it again, saying I’d be looking for a compressed hours pattern, and it was agreed.”

This ‘informal chat’, Sutopa believes, is key to carers negotiating a flexible role. “Nine times out of ten, certainly with this organisation, you can apply for flexible working if you’re successful in a job application. But you need to give yourself the best chance of getting the job in the first place.”

“My advice is to apply for jobs in line with your experience and skill set. Go for the job with a full heart and prepare thoroughly for the interview. Have a little heads-up conversation, possibly with the recruiting manager, beforehand – just get in touch and mention your situation, make sure you’re not wasting your time and efforts. Then give the best interview you can, so you’re in a position where they want you for your skills and your experience. When they offer you the job, that’s when you can explore the flexible options with them.”

And, remember, that carers can make some of the best employees. “Just because somebody is a carer and is looking after someone at home, doesn’t mean they’re any less of an employee. Talking from my own experience, the Trust has supported me as a carer and that makes me feel valued as an employee.”

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