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Poor mental health among workers is costing businesses billions in lost revenue, and flexible working could form part of the solution. Emily Reynolds explores the UK’s current landscape
The burden of mental illness in the workplace is not insignificant. According to the Mental Health Foundation(1), nearly one in seven of us have experience with it: 12.7% of all sick days in the UK can be attributed to mental illness, while it’s estimated that better mental-health support could save UK businesses £8 billion every year.
Interestingly, there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that flexible working could help ease this burden. One 2010 study(2) from Durham University found that flexible working arrangements that “increase worker control and choice” had a positive effect on a plethora of health outcomes – sleep quality, tiredness and alertness, blood pressure and mental health – as well as "secondary" outcomes, including a sense of community and social support within a workplace.
Another study, conducted by Kingston University on behalf of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD)(3), found that workers on flexible contracts tended to be more emotionally engaged, more satisfied with their work, more likely to speak positively about their organization and less likely to quit.
Even the UK government released a report(4) urging employers to offer flexible working for this precise reason, with the then Health Minister describing it as “crucial for wellbeing.” With these links between flexible working and mental health in mind, the question many UK businesses are asking is about how to implement flexible working practices within companies.
Shaking up the nine-to-five
Traditionally, office work was done on a fixed timetable: normally a variation on nine-to-five or eight-to-six. But now, many companies are allowing employees to work different hours – sometimes squeezing a normal working week into fewer, longer days, or starting or finishing at later times.
UK mental health charity Mind also points out that flexible hours – which give employees greater control over the precise hours they work – can provide a “better work-life balance, a chance to avoid commuting crowds and costs, and the ability to attend medical appointments” – all of which are important for those coping with mental illness.
Being able to start later in the day can be a boon for those who find getting up early difficult – perhaps due to sedating medication, for example.
In general, flexible hours can also “help people balance the demands of their work and their personal lives more effectively,” explains Professor Kinman. “There is evidence that people who work flexibly report better wellbeing, and are more satisfied with the work,” she says.
A reduction in hours may also prevent burnout – which some research(5) suggests could impact over half a million people in the UK alone. One 2015 study(6) found that reduced working hours had a positive effect on sleep, memory, negative emotion, sleepiness, fatigue and exhaustion; another(7) suggested that employers should reduce working hours for those with mental health problems to “reduce the burden of mental ill health in the working population.”
Flexible working arrangements that increase worker control have been shown to improve wellbeing and benefit mental health
But amended hours are not the only way to improve mental health in the workplace. A change of environment – allowing employees to work away from the office – could also help. Research(8) has shown that remote working can benefit mental health, improving not only wellbeing but also job satisfaction(9). Working from home, or from shared office space or co-working spaces, can also reduce burnout, stress and psychological distress, one study found(10).
Gail Kinman, professor of occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, points out that the stress of commuting can be a significant strain on many employees, particularly those who take medication or juggle a family life alongside their career.
Research shows that 33% of those with longer commutes (over 60 minutes each way) were more likely to suffer from depression. They are 40% more likely to have financial worries and 12% more likely to report issues due to work-related stress(11).
Mind(12) also points to this – commuting crowds can prove incredibly stressful, as well as incurring significant costs. Removing this stress could give those with mental health problems much-needed respite.
Making it work for everyone
When it comes to remote working, managers may require suitable training. “Managers don’t always have the skills to support [their staff],” says Almuth McDowall, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. She points to a “culture of presenteeism,” which measures performance by time at desk, not quality of output. “This needs to change,” she says. “Sometimes improvements in psychological wellbeing are small because flexibility needs to be implemented properly.”
Kinman agrees. “Some managers have difficulty managing their staff remotely, and continue to believe that ‘face time’ is productive time, and that employees will be slacking off if you can’t actually see them doing the work,” she says. “More training is needed to help them develop the skills.”
And interventions need to be systemic, with job stressors identified and managed at the source,” Kinman says. “We need to reduce demands and increase control and support. Ultimately, staff need to be helped to develop resilience to enable them to manage the demands of their work effectively.”
Allowing for choice
Of course, when it comes to flexible working – much like mental health – one size does not fit all. For some people, especially those who find it hard to create their own structure, flexible working is an unappealing prospect.
“It’s really important to allow employees to choose whether or not they want to work flexibly, and their pattern of work,” says Professor Kinman. “Not all employees want to work flexibly. Some prefer to work in their employers’ premises at set times each day. Control and choice over working patterns is essential to gain the benefits of flexibility.”
Research supports this: it seems that the key to a positive mental health outcome is workers being able to make their own decisions, rather than having a single "flexible" option presented to them.
Emily Reynolds is an award-winning freelance journalist and the author of A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind