Meet Professor Heejung Chung

Emily Collins
Heejung Chung profile

Professor Heejung Chung is a labour market sociologist based in the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SPSSR). Having researched flexible working and its impact on gender equality and work-life balance long before covid-19 forced it into the spotlight, she has become a go-to expert on the impact that it is having at home and in the workplace.

What led you to research flexible working practices?

My interest in flexible working practices stems from a deep-rooted passion to address labour market issues. I’ve always aimed to enable workers to achieve a better work-life balance while maintaining productivity and do this by providing evidence to challenge long-standing assumptions about how work and how workers should behave.

How did the covid-19 pandemic influence these assumptions?

Pre-pandemic, there was widespread stigma towards flexible working. The Government’s 2011 Work-Life Balance Survey suggested that 1/3 of all UK workers believed those who work flexibly create more work for others, while 29% of respondents to a British Social Attitudes 2018 survey thought that asking for a flexible working arrangement would have a negative impact on their career prospects. Similarly, according to the 2018 Eurobarometer, 29% of those surveyed in the UK agreed that flexible working is badly perceived by colleagues.

Views on flexible working definitely shifted as a result of the pandemic. In partnership with the Equal Parenting Project at the University of Birmingham, we collected data of workers and managers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The data showed that post-pandemic, fewer managers believe that presenteeism and long working hours are essential to career progression within organisations. There has also been an explosion of interest in the 4-day week, for which I first put a case together back in 2022.This has the potential to positively impact the wellbeing of workers and their families, improve social cohesion and reduce social inequality.

Does flexible working really provide a better work-life balance?

One of the things that we find with the rise of teleworking, home working and digital technology, especially where you can carry around your office with you in the form of your phone, is that people have the freedom to work anywhere and anytime they want. In theory this sounds great, but the problem is that people tend to use this opportunity to work everywhere, all the time.

The reason we do this is because many of us feel overwhelmed and feel the need to get on top of work. What science tells us is that always being connected to work is detrimental, not only for wellbeing but for productivity. This is because you really need mental and psychological detachment from work and genuine rest to be focussed and productive at work. In 2023 alone, work stress cost the UK economy £28 billion . So reducing work stress and overburden isn’t just about workers’ rights – it’s crucial to the economy and something political leaders need to think about.

Flexible working is widely lauded as the key to closing the gender pay gap. What are your thoughts on this?

My research supports the view that enabling women to work flexibly prevents them from dropping out of the labour market after childbirth. However, it has also shed light on some of the ways that flexible working can disadvantage women. One study I contributed to found that working from home can increase feelings that work and family demands conflict with one another, and that working from home can result in mothers doing more housework and childcare.

What needs to change to protect us from the pitfalls of flexible working?

A major issue is that the pressure to work long hours and always be busy at work has become the social norm – we believe that everyone does it so we should do it as well.  One way Governments are trying to tackle this is by putting boundaries in place through law. For instance, Australia has approved a law that provides employees with the right to refuse unreasonable calls from bosses outside of work hours without facing penalty. A similar approach is being discussed by the EU.

When working from home becomes more of a norm, and when we change the norms around whose responsibility it is to care for children – namely that both men and women should take part- we will see that homeworking will result in a more equitable division of housework and childcare.

Professor Heejung Chung’s work has significantly contributed to the policy directions of International governmental organisations, governments and advocacy groups across the world, and helped build capacity for policy proposals in promoting good flexible working practices. She has regularly featured in a range of media outlets including on the BBC, the Guardian, Harvard Business Review and The Telegraph. She is open to being featured in print, on TV and radio.