Health and Wellbeing Issues in the Flexible Working Environment
We are all aware that flexible working was exponentially accelerated because of the pandemic lockdowns. Two and a half years on, many of us have continued with flexible working patterns and it has become the norm for many of us.
If utilised correctly, flexible working gives us greater autonomy over how we work, which can be very supportive to our overall health and wellbeing. If used to our advantage, it can potentially give individuals an opportunity to enjoy a better work-life balance, helping to reduce absence and support individuals suffering from certain health issues to continue with their work. Effective flexible working can result in significant improvements to productivity, and this is mainly due to individuals being given the space, through flexible working, to explore and discover how they like to work, when they are at their most productive, and what work is best to tackle, and at what time of day
Advantages of flexible working
- Potential for improving work-life balance
- Can assist with reducing sickness absence
- Helpful in the management of chronic/long-term health issues
- Can be supportive of mental health and wellbeing
- Allows for greater autonomy over how employee’s work
- Potential for greater productivity
Flexible working differentiates itself from our understanding of traditional working practice with key factors such as:
- Having flexible start and finish times
- Working from home
- Compressed hours
- Staggered hours
- Annualized hours
What do we mean by flexible working?
- The Chartered Institute of Personnel Development (CIPD) suggests that flexible working ‘describes a type of working arrangement which gives a degree of flexibility on how long, where, when and at what times employees work.
- A degree of flexibility seems to be built into the very definition; we are, after all, talking about flexible
- Although every individual has the right to request flexible working by law, public guidelines on the subject are relatively vague.
- We are all aware that flexible working was exponentially accelerated because of the pandemic lockdowns, and it became the norm for many of us. Two and a half years on, many of us have continued with flexible working patterns.
Flexible Working: Key statistics
- 54% of the UK workforce engages in part-time or flexible work, with 8.7 million people in full-time employment declaring a desire to work flexibly.
- Millennials in particular value the idea of flexible working: 92% of those born between 1980 and 2000 rate flexibility as a top priority when conducting job searches.
2022 Forbes Research on Flexible Working
- There have been countless studies over recent years with research backing up the fact that flexible working seems to be positive and beneficial to employees, offering better job satisfaction, improved work-life balance, and physical health.
- In a study by Forbes which was released in February 2022 involving a sample of 1,000 full-time flexible workers: 88% agree that flexibility has increased their job satisfaction. 75% suggested improved physical health, and 75% suggested improved work-life balance.
- This sends out a message that if flexible working is done well, it can have incredibly positive effects on employees. Employers need to be mindful that each employee will have their own unique set of circumstances and we need to take all of these into consideration when planning how flexible working can best serve them.
What the Law says about Flexible Working
Every employee has the right to make a statutory request for flexible working after 26 weeks of employment. This request needs to be made formally in writing and only one request is permissible under law in any 12-month period.
There are two groups of disadvantages associated with flexible working which are Employee Health and Wellbeing Issues and Employee Work Style Issues.
Disadvantages of flexible working
Employee Health and Wellbeing Issues associated with Flexible Working:
- Blurring the work/life balance
- Isolation and the loneliness of working from home
- Lack of informal communication (chats by the watercooler)
- Decrease in physical activity
- Personal/life circumstance considerations
Employee Work Style Issues associated with Flexible Working:
- Communication issues/the rise of virtual meetings
- Micromanagement /Fear about getting work done
- Prioritisation of work tasks
The focus of this blog is to drill into health and wellbeing issues associated with flexible working. While on the next week’s blog we’re going to discuss employee work style issues associated with flexible working.
Blurring the work/life balance in a flexible working environment
There are of course disadvantages of flexible working which is the blurring of work/life balance that many of us feel. It is of course, helpful to have a good workspace in your home environment which is separate and distinct from where you spend your leisure time; however, for many of us, this is not always possible, with some of us working from our kitchen, lounge and bedrooms.
Even when we are able to dedicate a specific area of the home environment to our work, for some of us it’s still a mental challenge to go from having your breakfast, straight into work mode a few steps away. The traditional commute to the office in whatever form it is, car, bus, by foot, is helpful in getting employees into a ‘work’ mindset. In psychology terms, this is a useful transition phase, which is difficult to reproduce in the home working environment. In psychological talk, this transition phase has a technical term allocated to it called ‘priming’.
Top Tips for dealing with work/life balance in a flexible working environment
In a recent Thrive4Life talk Cheryl Isaacs, an occupational psychologist outlined that staff should be encouraged to develop habitual behaviours around assisting them to take action on what they find is supportive to their productivity and their overall mental and physical health and wellbeing. Developing new supportive habits can be helpful in achieving work/life balance. However, staff should always be patient and persistent with developing new habits, as most people underestimate how long they take to form.
Research has shown, it takes anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit and an average of 66 days for it to become embedded as automatic.
Whether employees are trying to develop an early morning exercise routine before work or develop a habit such as switching off their laptops when their work finishes, to allow them time to enjoy some quality work/life balance, developing these new habits takes time.
Cheryl explained how “sensory signals can be really helpful in reminding (staff) about tasks which are held in what is known as their ‘working memory’ and can be a great prompt to put these tasks into action. It might seem really obvious, but setting a simple sensor signal works.” This could be as simple as setting an alarm reminder on your phone.
She went on to explain how much of the time our brain is trying to manage incredible amounts of information through our working memory. It’s difficult to hold all the things that need to be actioned in our heads, we know we should do some of these things, like taking a break, doing some exercise, which is beneficial for us, but it is difficult when an employee finds themselves juggling so many things that need to be done in their day. All this information is stored in our working memory which is the part of the brain that helps us to concentrate and focus. Sometimes all those good things that your employees should act to support their health and wellbeing go out the window.
Using sensory signals is a great way of supporting new habits, so if you have staff struggling with setting a supportive work/life structure for their day. Get them using this simple trick.
Isolation and the loneliness of working from home
Even with the support of virtual meetings, working from home encourages feelings of loneliness. There’s been a lot of discussion about dealing with the loneliness associated with home working. And this isn’t just because we don’t have colleagues working next to us in the home environment.
Feeling disconnected or lonely is a common problem with home working. Flexible working radically changed the way we interact with colleagues and friends and encouraged us into virtual rather than real connections. The downturn in real interactions has taken a toll on employees’ wellbeing.
Top tip for dealing with Isolation while working in the flexible environment
- Flexible workers should be reminded of the importance of ‘real’ human interaction (as opposed to virtual) and the benefits these interactions hold to our mental wellbeing; employees should make all efforts to increase these real connections.
Lack of informal communication (chats by the watercooler)
Working from home means that many of us have reduced or lost the opportunity for informal, incidental interactions. It might have been a quick chat with the neighbour as you head out the door to go to work or a joke with your friendly barrister, or work-related (say at the water cooler or passing a colleague in the corridor). These informal seemingly inconsequential encounters were woven into the tapestry of our lives and yes, they are part of what makes an employee’s day whole and enjoyable. We have lost these interactions with flexible working. Employers need to be mindful that they are an all-important part of human connection and contribute positively towards an employee’s overall mental health and wellbeing.
Top tip for dealing with lack of informal communication in a flexible working environment
- Flexible working should be just that, flexibility with working in between different locations, say home and office. Staff need to make the most of enjoying real connections during their office working days, whether they be formal work meetings or other occasional social interactions that positively colour their day.
Decrease in physical activity while working from home
Janice Kaye, Managing Director of Thrive4Life emphasised another issue with flexible home working is that it decreases our general physical movement considerably.
Working from home means that we don’t commute and for some, this means that the customary walk to the train station or bus stop and to the office at the other end, has gone. Ambient moving around the office environment gives us movement, such as climbing the office stairs or going to fetch a coffee, or generally moving around the office to attend meetings or such. So, we really need to try hard at replacing this lost incidental activity.
There are of course many flexible workers who have the discipline, often fuelled by the pure enjoyment of exercise, to ensure that they incorporate a sufficient amount of activity in their day to replace this lost incidental activity and support their health and wellbeing. However, research has shown that many people are just not moving/exercising enough. It is a real concern and a major factor behind the development of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
One of Thrive4Life’s top corporate speakers Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, Sujith Konan commented that “Humans were not built to sit down however a large proportion of us are spending many hours of the day sat down at a desk in front of a computer. Currently, there isn’t definitive research which identifies the optimal level of activity for joint health but what we do know is that taking regular breaks from the sedentary posture is very important for joints”.
A study led by the World Health Organisation suggests that up to five million deaths per year could be avoided if the world population exercised more.
This alongside some research published in the journal Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases which proved that inactivity is a trend that affects low-middle and high-income countries alike shows that a lack of movement has become a global problem and one that is important to rectify for the overall health of the world population.
Top tips to encourage your employees to start moving again while working flexibly:
Janice advises that employers should encourage their flexible working employees in every possible to form a habit of regular exercise that they enjoy and incorporate this critical habit into their daily schedule.
- Up your level of health promotion activities that focus on the importance of increasing activity. Thrive4Life can help here as they provide an excellent professionally and designed series of health promotion articles that support and encourage employees to take up exercise.
- Arrange Thrive4Life talks from top consultants on the benefits of exercise as a key preventative measure to catalyse them into action.
- Formal exercise sessions aside, encourage your flexible home workers on trying to get more movement into their day in anyway that they can. Taking a walk round the block before or after work, is a great start and also contributes to helping you form a transition phase into and out of work mode. What psychologists refer to as that valuable ‘priming’ period.
- Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon, Sujith Konan advises “If you do have a sedentary role, I recommend getting up and walking around regularly throughout the day. “
Personal/difficult life circumstance considerations
There are of course, the circumstances of individual employees that need to be taken into consideration. It’s important that your managers are understanding and mindful of the different pressures and stresses that the staff under their care have, both personally and professionally.
Top Tips for supporting staff with personal/life circumstance considerations:
- Your managers should establish trust with their teams, so that staff feel confident that they come and speak to them about any concerns or difficulties that they might have
- Training should be provided for managers in awareness. Managers should learn skills of being alert to any changes in employees’ behaviour such as absence or changes in character that may indicate that they are under pressure (for example, someone who is usually positive and extravert, becoming more withdrawn and quieter).
- Encourage staff to talk about mental and physical wellbeing, this should be part of regular communications in meetings and performance appraisals. These conversations should become part of the norm and part of your company culture.
- Don’t be shy about speaking about pressure and stress with your employees. Having open conversations about mental wellbeing helps towards reducing stigma and allows proactive action if it’s required.
Overall, Flexible Working is a great environment to improve work-life balance, reduce sickness absence and potentially increase productivity. Although, flexible workers should understand that this type of environment is associated with health and wellbeing issues, such as isolation and loneliness, lack of informal communication and a decrease in physical activity. While working in a flexible environment workers should pay attention to their mental wellbeing and follow the tips on how to deal with health and wellness issues.
- Sisitha Jayasinghe, Nuala Byrne, Kira Patterson, Kiran Ahuja, Andrew Hills, ‘The Current Global State of Movement and Physical Activity – the Health and Economic costs of the inactive phenotype’, Science Direct, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S003306202030178X
- Thrive4Life Newsletter “Loneliness”.
- Thrive4Life Newsletter “The many benefits of movement”.
How Thrive4Life can help!
Thrive4Life can provide customised Line Manager training as well as MHFA and Wellbeing Champion training. We offer health promotion in the form of an extensive library of engaging content with well-designed articles / ePublications and monthly specialist talks on all aspects of health and wellbeing.
For companies who are looking for support with a strategy and ongoing process of health and wellbeing engagement that they can build over time, Thrive4Life has used a backdrop of over 30 years’ experience of delivering specialist health, safety and wellbeing guidance across multiple industries to develop an innovative, cost-effective solution that can help any size of organisation in the form of a fully customisable Health and Wellbeing Discovery Hub.
For more information about Thrive4Life services and training courses, get in touch or call us on 020 8972 9675.