Why flexible working is good for health

Home Working

 

This week is National Work Life Week and one of the biggest changes in work over the last 20 years is the opportunity to work flexibly, and particularly from home. Advances in technology have allowed people to work from their kitchens, home offices, or closest Starbucks… and there are costs and benefits to this new way of working.

I was talking to some new parents recently, and one new mum told me how worried she was about suggesting part-time working: “Do I look like I’m not bothered any more? Has my baby replaced my career?” she asked.

Her tendency was to over-work to prove that she was still a top employee… putting in extra hours and working on the days she was supposed to be not working. Another new mum said that she was expected to work on her ‘off’ days and was even invited to regular conference calls. Yet another said that she worked part time but no changes had been made to her role, so she was effectively supposed to be working full time in part-time hours, for less money.

When flexible working is effective, it can be a great thing – whether it’s part-time, condensed hours, term-time working or home working – it gives the employee the flexibility to balance their work and their lives. It works for people at all states of their lives; whether people want to combine work with studies, or fit around family life, or reduce working hours rather than retire completely. The benefits for the employer are multiple: retention of staff and their knowledge, increase in engagement and motivation and reduction in turnover.

Employees also welcome the opportunity to work flexibly; Powwownow’s Flexible Working survey 2017 states that 67% of employees wish they were offered flexible working, and 58% of people believe that working away from the office would help them be more motivated, and 40% would even choose it over a pay rise.

It reduces travel time, allows someone to work with no interruptions – or with the right kind of interruptions such as taking the dog for a walk at lunchtime – and can have a huge impact on quality of life.

Health pros and cons

My colleague and clinical director at London Doctors Clinic, Dr Daniel Fenton, suggests that working from home has health benefits. For instance, it may encourage healthier eating habits as you’re more likely to prepare your own lunch, as opposed to a pre-packaged sandwich, ready meal, or eating out. He says that you’re also more likely to eat breakfast, a meal often missed by busy commuters. He explains that eating breakfast sets you up well for the day, and your cognitive function is likely to be better, meaning a better memory and concentration which will hopefully lead to increased productivity.

However, if the employee or the employer doesn’t manage it properly, the impact of flexible working can be negative.

So what can go wrong?

Feeling that you need to “do it all” can have a dire effect on your mental health with too much pressure coming from the need to be ‘perfect’. Therefore, expecting someone to do a full-time job in part-time hours is unrealistic for the employee, and the employer. Homeworking can be lonely. Dr Fenton says: “The lack of social interaction can be detrimental to an individuals’ mental health. It is easy to become low in mood and anxious when having to deal with a large work load in total isolation. Feeling disconnected from the workplace can result in substantial stress. It is not uncommon for those working from home to regularly suffer with poor sleep patterns. People underestimate the benefits gained from routines. By staying in bed, or working in your pyjamas, you can lose sight of time and this can upset the natural circadian rhythm.”

How do we reduce the negative impacts of flexible working, and celebrate the positives? These are my top tips for managers and employees.

Managers:

  • Make sure you understand what the flexibility means. If it’s not to work on a Wednesday, don’t invite them to meetings on a Wednesday!
  • Reduce workload in line with the reduced hours. Flexible working is not working fulltime in part-time hours, which will only increase stress and anxiety, as well as feelings of resentment.
  • Remember the homeworkers. Working alone can feel isolating so finding ways to include people in team activities is important: not just an invite to a team meeting over Skype or the phone, but also social activities.
  • Keep an eye on the mental health of flexible workers. Do they seem stressed? Has their behaviour changed? Ask for extra support if you’re worried, such as from HR or a private GP practice.

Employees:

  • Be clear about the hours or days you work, and whilst some flex is important, it should be unusual rather than the norm.
  • Make sure you continue to have social relationships whether you’re part-time or a homeworker: make time to pop into the office and meet your colleagues. Whilst technology is great, nothing beats face to face for building and developing relationships.
  • Talk to your manager about the technology you can use to stay in touch: Skype, mobile, email, WhatsApp, instant messaging apps… There are a host of ways to stay connected.
  • Set aside a particular space to work where you won’t be interrupted.
  • If you’ve moved to part-time working, don’t feel guilty if you’re not doing everything you were doing. Naturally, your workload should reduce.
  • If you’re feeling stressed by your flexible working, talk to your manager or HR to try to resolve the situation and reduce your stress.
  • Enjoy it!!

*Vicki Field is HR Director at London Doctors Clinic.



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