Flexible working is not necessarily helping workers to relieve their work-family conflict, suggests a recent report into work autonomy, flexibility and work-life balance across Europe.

"The outcome of flexible working hugely depends on the context in which it is being used," explains Dr Heejung Chung, lead researcher for the Work Autonomy, Flexibility and Work-Life Balance project. For example, flexibility in the boundaries between work and family can actually lead to an expansion of work.

One reason flexible working can make work spill over into family life is that workers worry about work when not working. Employees may also work longer hours, encroaching into family time. Some workers also appear to work harder to compensate for a potential negative stigma for working flexibly.

In addition, flexible working may not always lead to better workfamily balance because it increases the potential for women to work after childbirth, when previously they may have stopped working altogether.

"While flexible working can allow women to maintain their labour market positions because they can meet both work and family demands, it means more conflict," says Dr Chung.

Businesses and governments must address these challenges so that good flexible working practices can be developed. Dr Chung says: "Work culture needs to change the image of the 'ideal worker' from someone who only works, and only thinks of work, to that of someone who is able to manage both work and other aspects of life, enabling a more productive and happier society overall."

A step forward would be to ensure a 'right to flexible work' rather than the 'right to request flexible work'. This would ensure flexible working arrangements are available for all workers and not only the few.