Duncan combines saving lives with family life

Duncan Leys was wary of taking a big job with the coastguard for fear it’d keep him away from his family. It actually had the opposite effect.


Flexible working is a broad term taking in everything from the occasional day working from home to something altogether more fundamental, like Duncan Leys’ job with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Here he explains why he was reticent about signing up for a high pressure and long hours job that might impact his role as a dad, but how actually it’s made him more hands on than ever.

Duncan Leys and his family


So, I’d found the dream job – but how was I going to make it work?

I’d worked shifts in the past, but not here in the UK, nor with a full-time working wife and three-year-old son. Day shifts would be long, night shifts would take me out of action for 24 hours, there would no reliable pattern for my partner Hannah to rely on and plan around, and I’d miss out on weekends with my son Rupert.

And with us having only just moved to this country from Australia it all just looks too impractical. I’ll find something more routine. A nine-to-fiver.


The job is in operations. My background. I know and understand the 24/7 operational environment, with all its different rhythms and nuances, boredoms and excitements, challenges and rewards. It’s in my bones. So, y’know, swings and roundabouts…so how about I – sorry, we – give it a try?

If it doesn’t work out, I can always hop on the Monday-Friday gravy train.

Yeah? Yes, alright. Okay then. Deep breath and…

Saving lives

First thought, the job: Maritime Operations Controller in Her Majesty’s Coastguard, responsible for the tactical command of search and rescue missions in the UK coastal and maritime domain. A Controller gains and maintains situational awareness of all incidents requiring an operational response, and continually assesses the effectiveness of that response. Simply put, we ensure the Coastguard and its Search and Rescue partners are doing their level best to save lives and return loved ones to their friends and family. What we do matters. It’s as rewarding as it sounds. And working for HM Coastguard means you’re part of the Civil Service, with all its attendant benefits: decent salary, job security, nice pension, excellent workplace support provisions. So good on all fronts.

Oh. Wait. Hang on.

Back to the 24-7-365 shift work conundrum.

Deep breath and…

…we needn’t have worried. Turned out to be, without any measure of exaggeration, perfect for us as a family. Why? Because I work 12-hour shifts. Now, before those of you who work only 8 hours turn white and whisper ‘12 hours?! but that’s insane…’ most people travel to and from work during peak period and can add at least 30-60 minutes to their day getting to work, and then, that again getting home. But I’m travelling to and from work before and after the peak congestion so my commute is negligible (and I’m in the south, where normally you can walk five miles on the roof of cars without touching the ground).

More days off

Better yet, the real benefit is that 12-hour shifts mean many more days off in a year. You push together my annual working days and you’d get about six months’ worth. So that’s six months a year when I’m not working. And that’s before I take leave. Which we get more of, as compensation for being rostered 365.

And what that means is that half the week every week I get my lad ready and take him to and from school (he’s six now) and spend time with him in the afternoons. I do more than half the housework (yes, really, ask Hannah) because I’m at home even more than she is, so we rarely, if ever, have issues on the domestic front.

I get time to myself during weekdays, and those working weekends (two out of every five weekends) and nights are mitigated by the extra leave we get. The roster pattern is structured and set, so I can tell Home Command™ what days I’m working in two years’ time, which she really appreciates, being the family planner.

Special events

All that time off during the week also means I rarely miss those special events: the lad’s school assembly performance, volunteering to help on an outing, and so on. And with my wife working only four days a week, we often get a Friday off together with – gasp – the lad at school. It’s like a six-hour holiday most weeks, and we try and make the most of it.

So sure, there are times when you’re dog-tired after two-night shifts (we never work more than three nights in a row, and that only happens once every five weeks, in case you’re asking), or you work a weekend when the rugby’s on. But swings and roundabouts. Because it’s great knowing that I’m contributing to our household both financially and domestically in a very real and equal sense, and my relationship with both lad and wife are the better for it. And really, in the end, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

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