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Can flexible working be bad for your health?
According to Gail Kinman, professor of Occupational Health Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, it is not flexible working itself that is the problem, but how it is implemented, for instance, she says, if people are forced to work remotely because their office is closed down it can cause stress.
Research shows that workplace stress is accentuated where people feel they are not in control of their work patterns.
Citing US management consultant Ellen Kossek, Kinman says different types of workers react differently to work life balance issues.
Some like to segment their work and home life and would prefer to work late at the office than do some work from home; others favour total integration; and others volley between segmentation and integration.
“No one size fits all,” she says. “What matters is the extent to which you feel in control of how you work and get satisfaction from it.”
She adds that the recession has meant fewer resources are being put into the management of flexible working beyond compliance with the extension of the right to request flexible working to all workers, legislation she says is weak.
She would like to see “proper guidance and advice” for people who work from home and technical and other forms of support.
“It’s not just about ergonomics. It is a fact that working from home is socially isolating. Many managers are not trained to manage people who are remote workers,” she says. “It’s not easy.
It’s about trusting staff and focusing on results. Managers also need to role model good practice such as not emailing at all hours.”
Another problem is the stigmatisation of flexible workers. “Flexible working employees are still seen as less committed and less deserving,” Professor Kinman says, adding that even women and young people perceive flexible workers in this way.
Coupled with technology which allows people to be “always on” – something which affects all workers – this can lead to overworking as flexible workers try to counter the negative perceptions.
Interestingly, Professor Kinman says research shows that, though those who are always on, always checking email, are affected by the extent to which colleagues do so, “the main factor is the individual themselves.
They want to do it for various reasons. It’s very powerful. People need guidance. They won’t regulate it themselves.”
Professor Kinman, who is chair of the British Psychological Society’s work life balance working group, is critical of the agile working agenda, which she says “often puts the onus onto employees to be flexible and not the employer to offer flexibility.
They have to be available at all times”. She’d also like to see more focus in the flexible working debate on the rising number of people doing precarious jobs.
She adds that lots of employers are doing innovative work on flexible working and supporting flexible workers, but she says more needs to be done to share that best practice.
In addition to greater guidance for flexible workers, particularly remote workers, Professor Kinman says that more needs to be done to identify the benefits of flexible working.
At the moment, she says, there is not a lot of evidence of these benefits beyond higher retention rates and lower absence levels, in part because these may be ‘soft’ benefits, such as life satisfaction and psychological well being, of parents as well as children. “There is some fascinating work done on children of working parents.
There is also some research suggesting that young people are not prepared to sacrifice work for family life. They have seen what happens,” she says.