Flexible Working Improves Mental Health

Cheerful young business people having brainstorming session

There are well-founded and proven self-care tips in helping employees deal with stress better, but they subdue the equalif not greater, responsibility of the employers to provide a supportive environment that fosters mental wellbeing. 

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) estimated that Malaysia spent RM43.6 trillion on mental illnesses in 2010, and with a three-fold increase in mental health problems among the population over the past 20 years, the cost is predicated to rise to RM99.9 billion 2030. 

Rather than dispensing self-help advise to employees, companies should relook into the traditional models of working and explore a more sustainable and cost-friendly solution to meet the rising demand for work-life balance.  

Interestingly, there’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that flexible working could help ease work-related stress. One 2010 study 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. 

Perhaps, companies can join this year’s World Mental Health day and consider stepping away from the traditional work model, whilst introducing new practices that puts its employees mental health first.  

Shaking up the nine-to-five 

Traditionally, office work was done on a fixed timetable; a variation of nine-to-five or eight-to-six. But now, companies are allowing employees to work different hours – sometimes squeezing a normal working week into several longer days or starting or finishing at later times.   

Flexible hours give employees greater control over the precise and most productive hours they worka chance to avoid commuting crowds and costs, and the ability to attend medical appointments – all of which contributes to the mental health of the employee. 

Additionally, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), companies can support people with mental disorders at work by giving them the option of flexible hours. 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. 

Remote working 

Research has shown that remote working can improve employee mental health, improving not only wellbeing but also job satisfaction. Working from home, or from shared office space or co-working spaces, can also reduce burnout, stress and psychological distress, one study found. 

Flexible and remote working also means that employees can avoid the stressful experience of commuting to work. A study by the International Islamic University Malaysia points out that the stress of commuting can increase a worker’s negative mood states and frustration and lead intentions to quit their jobs. By enabling their employees to work closer to home or away from the office, businesses can save on the unproductive time spent on travelling to a central location.  

Allowing for choice  

Flexible working boils down to choice. According to the 2019 IWG Global Workplace Survey, around 20 percent of global workers describe flexible working as the ability to make some decisions regarding their working hours, a quarter equate it with being able to manage workload, but more than 50 percent relate it to being able to choose the type of work location. 

Of course, when it comes to flexible working – much like mental health – one size does not fit all. For people who thrive on routines and require a bit more discipline to counter their lackadaisical attitude, flexible working can be an unappealing prospect. 

It is important to give employees the choice of flexible working hours, depending on their working styles. Not all employees want to work flexibly, and some prefer to work in their employers’ premises at set times each day. Control and choice over conformative working patterns is essential to gain the benefits of flexibility. 

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. And happiness is good for business. A recent study by economists at the University of Warwick found that employee happiness led to a 12 percent spike in productivity.1  

With the evidence stacked against the traditional working model and growing awareness on workplace mental health, there is hope that companies of the future will make the right choice for their employees.

Article written by Vijayakumar Tangarasan, Country Head of IWG Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei

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