Why flexible working will make you happier and healthier

Friday, June 30, 2017

When it comes to work habits in the modern era, one thing is clear; the times, they are a-changing. For some, the standard 9 to 5 work day is being replaced by a new age that allows for greater flexibility including hot desking, working from alternate locations, flexible hours and job sharing - and according to the experts, it's a healthier way to work.

Some of Australia's largest corporations have made the switch to a new era where non-permanent desks are the norm. In the case of the NAB head office, 6,000 employees float between 4,500 desks, and they also have the choice of meeting rooms and casual living-room-like areas in which to conduct their work.

And in Sweden, workers are being treated to a condensed six-hour work day. Businesses implementing this change hope that by giving their employees more time to spend with their families, they'll be more productive when they're at work.

While the Swedish six-hour work day system is a step in the right direction for mental and physical health, Christine Bagley-Jones, psychologist at the Counselling and Wellbeing Centre in Brisbane believes that companies should adopt a system that lets employees choose their own hours.

"Some people prefer to work longer hours so they can have more days off, while for others it's ideal to work strictly within school hours so they can pick up their kids," she says. "It's wonderful if an organisation can give their staff that sense of control."

If shorter hours isn't an option, perhaps getting out of the office is all you need. Working at your local café or park can revitalise your body and mind by offering a change of scenery and fresh surroundings. It can also enhance your creativity and give you the opportunity to make new connections you couldn't have made in the office.

Have a meeting you can't get out of? Suggest an outdoor "walking meeting" to your colleagues to get you moving - a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found walking boosts brain function and help participants generate fresh ideas.

Overworked and overstressed

According to the OECD Better Life Index, fourteen percent of Australian workers are currently putting in more than 50 hours a week, and that could be putting our health and wellbeing at risk.

Bagley-Jones believes that working flexibly - whether that be working fewer hours like our friends in Sweden or simply changing your scenery - is advantageous for both employee and employer.

"I strongly believe that it's psychologically beneficial for people to have more flexibility in their work environment, both in terms of their hours and in the way they approach their duties," she says.

"This can also include being able to work from home or elsewhere," says Bagley-Jones. "They tend to be happier because they have a sense of control and opportunity around work."

And it's not just our mental well being that stands to benefit from changing our workaholic ways — our physical health could improve as well.

A recent review of 25 studies published in The Lancet involving more than 600,000 people found that employees who worked 55 hours or more per week had an increased risk of stroke and coronary heart disease compared to employees who worked 35 to 40 hours per week.

With this health warning in mind, management would do well to remember that business can often reap significant rewards from offering flexible working conditions, including increased job productivity and a reduction in absenteeism from their workers.

"The more opportunity you give an employee to put their own stamp on their position, the more ownership they tend to take regarding their job," says Bagley-Jones.

Time to make a change

Bagley-Jones believes Australia is taking so long to adopt flexible working conditions because employers need a lot of evidence before they'll embrace change.

"Many bosses have this fear that if they can't watch you do the work, they'll have no proof it's really happening," she says. "Employers need to trust their employees and have mechanisms to confirm that the productivity is the same."

Whether flexible working to you means grabbing a laptop and working remotely, or getting home an hour early to make the most of the evening, approaching your boss about the possibility may be one the most beneficial steps you can take for your health.

Breaking the cycle

What is still baffling to me is the number of people that become small business owners and end up working harder than they used to, quite often for less money - at least in the early years. Further, with all of the evidence on the benefits of a flexible working environment there is still a desire to secure the traditional office with a company logo on full display. Choosing a traditional office is an emotional decision, almost egotistical; there is no logic to it. Why in this day and age, where employees want flexibility and creative spaces and contracts are shorter and the workload is harder to predict, would any sensible organisation commit to a rigid office lease and design the space around the boss's ego?

Smart business owners are embracing flexible environments and shared facilities, whether you are a multi-national corporate using the NAB example or a SME working out of serviced or co-working offices your employees and your cash-flow will thank you!

Why flexible working will make you happier and healthier

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