The potential of rhythm intelligence

By Dr Krystal Wilkinson 

When managing people it’s important to be aware of the various rhythms of work, and how these intersect with different rhythms of life (work-life interface)

Whilst many people still equate the work-life interface to work-family balance and conflict, especially around balancing the demands of employment with young children, it is important to be aware that a number of non-work issues and challenges may have an impact upon an employee at work, and vice-versa. The rhythms of life will vary from individual to individual, and also over the life course. 

I am a former HR professional, who now teaches HRM to university students and am part of the CIPD qualifications assessment team. My own research interests have centred upon work-life interface issues that have been under-explored in academic research, and under-acknowledged in organisational practice.

Are we considering those who live alone?

My first research project was on solo-living managers and professionals without children. This revealed a number of challenges that were unique to this population, including a perceived lack of legitimacy for their non-work time demands, and low sense of entitlement to flexibility at work – or for even refusing to work over their contracted hours – as they didn’t have the ‘excuse’ of a child waiting at the school gate, or even a partner at home.

I led a further study last year exploring transitions to homeworking for solo-living employees during the pandemic. They reported many additional demands and challenges as a result of the mandatory transition, and yet often felt their needs were overlooked by their employers and managers. 

Complex fertility journeys and employment

Currently, I am researching complex fertility journeys and employment. This includes experiences of fertility tests; medical procedures to correct underlying medical conditions; fertility treatments; miscarriage; and involuntary childlessness. I am also researching mental illness in the perinatal period (defined as pregnancy and up to one-year post-birth) and how this relates to employment – the experiences of women experiencing perinatal mental illness, the experiences of men experiencing perinatal mental illness, and the experiences of employees whose partner is experiencing perinatal mental illness. This study was prompted by my own lived experience of severe perinatal mental illness and the significance of my own and my husband’s employment experience in how we coped as a family. 

What these research projects have collectively demonstrated is a lack of awareness amongst several groups, including HR practitioners and line managers, of the non-work demands of considerable proportions of the contemporary workforce.

  • Solo-living is the fastest-growing household type in most developed countries;
  • one in six couples experience infertility, and fertility treatment is the safest route to parenting for same-sex couples and women without a partner;
  • one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage;
  • one in five women are childless at mid-life, 90% of which is involuntary;
  • 20% of pregnant women/new mothers experience perinatal mental illness, as do 10% of men/fathers. 

You may be surprised at these statistics, especially if you have not come across these issues in employees in your own workplace. But a key issue in my research has been a reluctance to disclose these issues and associated needs at work, for a variety of reasons – which is compounded where there are no policies or narratives in the workplace to connect to (for example, an employee typing ‘IVF’ into the intranet, and there being no match).

I mentioned above the lack of legitimacy felt by some solo-living people – that their needs are not important because other staff (parents and carers) ‘have it harder’. Those experiencing infertility or miscarriage may feel too upset or even ashamed to mention these at work or feel these issues are too private.

  • Those undergoing fertility treatment may worry about the consequences of disclosure, in terms of perceptions of commitment to their jobs, or about being continually asked for progress updates.
  • Those experiencing mental illness during pregnancy may worry about the stigma, and so blame any time off on physical symptoms of pregnancy, which they believe to be more socially acceptable.
  • Those experiencing post-natal issues during maternity leave, may not know whether/how to inform their employer, and if the illness episode persists when the woman is due to return to work, she may simply decide not to return to work at all, and state another reason for leaving. 

So what does this all point to, in terms of ‘skills for the future’ for the people managers?

An article was published earlier this year in the International Small Business Journal: Researching Entrepreneurship on the topic of maternity management.

The authors, who happen to be colleagues of mine at the Centre for Decent Work and Productivity at Manchester Metropolitan University – Prof Julia Rouse, Dr Jamie Atkinson and Dr Andrew Rowe – develop the notion of rhythm intelligence as an important competency for line managers.

Rhythm intelligence initially involves being aware of how the rhythms of work can often conflict with other key rhythms of an employee, causing moments or prolonged periods of arrhythmia. In Rouse and her colleagues’ paper, the rhythms of relevance were the often unpredictable rhythms of the employee’s body during maternity, and the rhythms of the infant body (in terms of childcare needs, etc.) Rhythm intelligence then involves being willing and able to resolve the arrhythmia, ideally via co-creating solutions, such as flexible working patterns, with the affected employee.

Most line managers in SMEs appear to have low levels of rhythm intelligence

The authors explored a specific moment in the maternity journey (the return to work following maternity leave) and a specific issue (a formal request for flexible working). They concluded that most line managers in SMEs appear to have low levels of rhythm intelligence – often refusing to approve flexible working requests, or failing to make the job/team accommodations required to make an approved request successful – even where this caused the manager significant problems too, such as the employee resigning. 

I have been using the concept of rhythms and rhythm intelligence to think about the data from my own research projects. How the work and non-work rhythms of solo-living staff were both significantly disrupted by the pandemic, and how those that coped the best seemed to be those who had the autonomy, support and/or guidance – as appropriate to their own individual needs – to create new working rhythms that fitted their evolving non-work rhythms.

For example, flexibility during the day to do exercise, or take some time away from screens if they were experiencing ‘zoom fatigue’, which was preventing them from engaging in social activities outside of work. 

In the complex fertility journeys and employment project, we have observed how different work rhythms (including the rhythms of the job, the team, and the career) have an impact on an individual’s decision-making about their fertility journeys (such as if and when to started fertility treatment), as well as how the unpredictable rhythms of their bodies (connected to menstrual cycles, reactions to fertility treatments, miscarriage experiences), and the rhythms of fertility clinics, impact on decision-making at work – for example, if and when to disclose fertility treatment; how to navigate time to attend appointments; whether to reduce hours, change jobs, or even leave the labour market for a while. In terms of the needs of these employees, these varied considerably from person to person, although autonomy and flexibility were usually advantageous. 

The ideal manager, once made aware of a complex fertility journey, would take time to find out the specific challenges for the specific employee (their current and anticipated ‘arrhythmia’); find out the options available in their workplace in terms of ‘temporary reasonable adjustments’ to the job (hours, location, workload); negotiate and agree with the employee which adjustments might be useful; perhaps have a trial period, and then review (perhaps regularly) and adjust as needed. This involves a manager understanding their own limits in terms of skills, knowledge, and autonomy, and seeking further guidance as appropriate. 

Understanding the various work and non-work rhythms of each employee

Rhythm intelligence can be applied more broadly to having an understanding of the various work and non-work rhythms of each employee, and how these fluctuate. A rhythm intelligent manager would appreciate that the productivity and support needs of different team members at any one time will vary and that the productivity of each individual will fluctuate over the life course, as they go through different phases of life, and experience different things (such as marriage, illness, divorce, children, menopause, approaching retirement).

From a diversity management perspective, rhythm intelligence is helpful. If we acknowledge that all employees go through periods where they are likely to need additional support at work and that as an employer, we are committed to offering that support, then it makes it easier to for employees to ask for that support – they don’t have to belong to a protected group in order to feel entitled. The CIPD’s ‘Flex from first’ campaign is useful here, promoting the notion that flexibility can be important for all types of employees, and that it doesn’t harm productivity (quite the opposite). 

I suggest that HR professionals also need to show rhythm intelligence, now more than ever. The CIPD champion ‘better work and working lives’, and yet work and lives are ever-evolving. The pandemic created huge shifts in work rhythms, as well as the rhythms of non-work for many employees, and these changes are ongoing, as organisations adapt to hybrid working and beyond. HR professionals can review the appropriateness and inclusivity of all policies and procedures; run focus groups with employees about the key job and work-life issues they are experiencing; train senior managers and line managers in rhythm intelligence; and work on making ongoing learning, adaptation and inclusivity central to the culture of the organisation.

About the author

Dr Krystal Wilkinson is a Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management at Manchester Metropolitan University and a member of the Centre for Decent Work and Productivity. Her research focuses on the work-life interface, especially around solo-living, complex fertility journeys, maternity and mental health.

Support employees through fertility treatment or losing a baby in pregnancy

Does your organisation raise awareness about any of these issues in the workplace or provide support for employees experiencing them? If so, CIPD would like to hear from you to have a conversation about what you do, with the aim of including your organisation as a short case study in the guidance. Please do get in touch: with Claire Deller-Rust at claire.dellerrust@cipd.co.uk.

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