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Is Flexible Working Bad for Your Health?

18/01/2016 11:09 | Updated 18 January 2016

'Flexible working is bad for your health' screamed a headline a few days ago. Oh no, here we go with the backlash against flexible working, I thought. I read the article with interest, well aware that to every positive there is always a negative. It seemed to conflate quite a few things - it blamed flexible working for our 'always on' work culture, for one. Yet everyone is now potentially connected to work email at every hour of the day, not just flexible workers. The challenge for employers is how to ensure constant email overload does not result in burn-out, for instance, by training managers in how to role model good practice rather than emailing employees at 6am on Sundays.

The other day I was writing a profile of a woman working a four-day week in a high-level job. "It all sounds a big stressful and breathless," said someone who had read the profile. The interviewee said she checked emails at night sometimes and that on Mondays she was met with an email deluge because she didn't work Fridays and tried not to log on over the weekend if possible. Yes, stressful, but less stressful, I am willing to bet, than doing it all for five days a week and having no time to see your kids or have a bit of a pause for one day a week. I think we do nobody any favours by presenting flexible working as some sort of nirvana.

There are lots of other challenges, which the article outlined, but most were due to poor management and stigmatisation of some forms of flexible working. Flexible working itself was not the problem. For instance, some people still perceive that remote workers are somehow less committed and less deserving. Many managers are not trained to manage staff remotely which involves judging on output rather than presenteeism and developing a culture of trust.

Another problem is the way that it is implemented. According to Gail Kinman, professor of Occupational Health Psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, 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. Not all workers like working remotely, she says, and so engagement with employees before a decision is taken is important. "No one size fits all. What matters is the extent to which you feel in control of how you work and get satisfaction from it."

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Another management issue is the growing expectation that employees will be available at all times, even on days they don't work, something that is formalised in the contracts of those who are on zero hours. Flexible working works best when there is a balance between the benefits that employees and employers get out of it and not when the pendulum swings too far one way or the other. That is why it is vital that those employers who do get it right share best practice as much as possible.

A report just out shows the widespread benefits that could come if good practice on flexible working was embedded across the jobs spectrum. The report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says over 200,000 people are stuck in poverty on low paid, part-time jobs because of the lack of availability of 'good-quality' flexible jobs and ones with some form of career progression.

The ability to work a job in a flexible way is mentioned in just 6.2 per cent of adverts for quality job vacancies. The JRF says that since research shows nearly half of the UK's workforce want flexibility in their next job, this creates fierce demand for the flexible, quality jobs that do exist.

The report states that encouraging more employers to introduce flexible working into their hiring practices would offer three wins: more talent and productivity for business, higher living standards for employees and lower welfare costs for government.

The benefits of flexible working are clearly widespread, but it is not just enough to offer the jobs. They must be managed effectively.

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