Disconnected: Are flexible work arrangements bad for your health?

You need to feel supported but most of all you need to be calling the shots

Eleanor Malbon is a researcher and a poet – and she doesn't see the need to choose between her two disparate careers.

Malbon, who has an arts/science degree in interdisciplinary research and English literature, works four days a week at UNSW Canberra, and spends the rest of her working hours writing poetry.

"Poetry was part of the decision to work part-time," says Malbon, "I was feeling the pressure from losing that part of my life."

Malbon is one of a growing number of people using workplace flexibility to pursue other interests. In her case, she works part-time, but others may compress their work week (the same number of hours, but fewer days), work from other locations, or in non-standard hours.

Malbon has studied the scientific research around the impact of flexible work practices on health and says the benefits of flexibility depend on whether the worker chooses their conditions.

"It comes down to this issue of control," she says.

With Gemma Carey, research director of the Centre for Social Impact at UNSW Business School, Malbon is co-author of the report, Implications of work time flexibility for health promoting behaviour.

Malbon points out that organisational flexibility and worker flexibility are not the same thing. Organisational flexibility is employer-controlled and tends to be about reducing real estate or labour costs by outsourcing work, casualisation of jobs and 'hot-desking'.

An example is IBM, which has saved billions of dollars through hot-desking and telecommuting, with annual savings of $100 million in the US alone. 

Worker flexibility is where the employee gets to choose a work style that suits them as an individual, deciding where and when to work, and taking holidays according to their needs.

'It is not flexibility itself that is damaging, but the way it plays out for the individual employee and, specifically, about how much choice they get'


Location, location

Around 30% of Australian workers work from home at least part of their week and more than half of all businesses have offered flexible work options, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

"Flexibility appeals to both the employee and the employer," says Malbon.

"It is not flexibility itself that is damaging, but the way it plays out for the individual employee and, specifically, about how much choice they get."

Caryl Barnes, consultant psychiatrist to the Workplace Mental Health team at UNSW's Black Dog Institute, says "activity-based working" policies, where employees no longer have a fixed desk, may reduce real estate costs, but can also harm those who don't adapt well to the new environment.

"This is causing a lot of psychological distress in people concerned about not having a place, in terms of belonging and having a social structure," Barnes says.

"They like to know the person sitting next to them. Things that look great on paper – because we are not using 50% of our desks at any one time – don't really equate to human behaviour."

Barnes says some people feel excluded when they don't have their own desk: "It is a feeling of not really belonging and not being connected. They feel they are not valued enough to be given a place to get the work done."

The health impact was noted in research on hot-desking social workers, who tended not to return to the office for a debrief after difficult interactions with clients.

"They didn't really want to come in to the office … and they were not getting that support from their peers and were starting to show some negative mental and physical outcomes for their health as a result of that," says Barnes.

"That social support that comes from [having a] place is really important."

'Individuals that are supported at work and feel they have meaning and are connected at work, people like that are flourishing'


Bound to be available

The 'gig economy' and insecure work also present health challenges. Malbon says such employment is based around demand and is not necessarily predictable or regular.

"You have a lot less choice around when you work," she explains.

A report on non-standard forms of employment for the International Labour Office in Geneva found job insecurity can be associated with negative outcomes affecting work satisfaction, psychological and mental wellbeing, and overall life satisfaction.

Barnes believes insecure work creates uncertainty and financial stress for families.

"The onus is on individuals to cope with that and I think it is really hard," she says.

"One of the core things for mental health is financial security. What is good for an individual organisation doesn't have to be good for the community."

While the ideal is for people who work for themselves to be able to take holidays when it suits them, the reality is often that they take no breaks because they have no one to take over when they are away or feel bound to be available at all times to their clients.

"That is one reason that some people don't go and work for themselves, it is just less stressful," says Barnes.

Work follows you home

In practice, flexible work sometimes means never being away from it. When work demands interfere with home life, it can be very stressful.

"We do know from research that jobs that have a lot of work-family conflict result in a lot of psychological stress," says Barnes

And financial institutions are concerned about the health of people who have to get up in the middle of the night to keep in touch with offices overseas.

"That causes huge issues with fatigue and then workplace stress because of not realising the impact that fatigue is having on people," she says.

 "If you are constantly working in that environment, that is going to build up over time."

Good managers keep track of work patterns to ensure they do not have too much broken sleep and employees are directed to take time off to compensate and recover.

"People can lack awareness that they are taking too much on or they can be in denial," Barnes says.

She makes the point that workplace flexibility has to be flexible. It sounds self-evident, but conditions that may be a benefit to some people may be a trial for others.

A CEO recently explained to her that she could not relax on her holidays unless she had checked her emails in the morning to stay on top of issues.

However, being expected to respond to emails from home may be stressful for others, depending on how they manage their boundaries between home life and work life.

"For some people, it can cause a lot of distress and they can feel quite easily overwhelmed," Barnes says.

"There is a quite a degree of variability. But if it is you that is choosing – based on your knowledge of your own roles and demands outside of work, then that seems to be better for you, rather than organisations saying everyone has to work the same way."

According to Barnes, people will also need varying degrees of flexibility at different stages of their lives, such as when they become new parents or approach retirement age.

"Individuals that are supported at work and feel they have meaning and are connected at work, people like that are flourishing. They will do well and productivity goes up. We mustn't lose sight of that," she says.


You are free to republish this article both online and in print. We ask that you follow some simple guidelines.

Please do not edit the piece, ensure that you attribute the author, their institute, and mention that the article was originally published on Business Think.

By copying the HTML below, you will be adhering to all our guidelines.

Press Ctrl-C to copy