Flexible work improves mental health, study suggests

Employees say greater control over hours leads to better work-life balance, but managers still struggle with concept 

A study outlining the positive benefits of flexible working has found that more than a third of flexible workers have seen an improvement in their mental health, as experts warned against the impact of negative attitudes from management towards the topic.

The anonymous survey of employees from 115 companies, conducted by Wildgoose, discovered that 39 per cent of those who worked flexibly had benefited from better mental health.

It also found that 43 per cent who did not have the option of flexible working felt it would enable them to better manage their mental health.

Almost one in seven (69 per cent) respondents felt flexible working helped them maintain a work-life balance. The same proportion of those not currently working flexibly said it would make them more productive.

“Flexible working increases productivity and employee wellbeing. The numbers speak for themselves,” said Dr Washika Haak-Saheem, associate professor of international HR management at Henley Business School.

However, Haak-Saheem also acknowledged that it was still a tricky topic. “Some places don’t offer flexible working because it is difficult to manage and, when we talk about flexible hours and conditions, it means different things to different people,” she said.

“It is challenging to manage, particularly in a larger workforce and in the service industry, where employers cannot be as flexible as they would like.” 

Sir Cary Cooper, president of the CIPD and professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School, added that, despite demand for flexibility, it was often managers who were hesitant or unwilling to make the change: “A lot of line managers still feel that they want face time with their staff, and want them to be present in the workplace.

“Some line managers do not have emotional intelligence and, despite a menu of flexible working options, will block the request. They will find any excuse to not grant flexible working and that’s the problem. We need to make sure line managers fully sign up to it and make it happen.”

The data also found a divide in opinions between men and women on flexible working. More than half of men not currently working flexibly felt it would help them manage their mental health, in comparison to just one third of women. 

“Men would like to work flexibly but ultimately don't because they feel it will adversely affect their career and promotion prospects,” said Cooper.

“Flexible working doesn’t work for everyone and some people want to have a separation between work life and home life, but that is vastly decreasing.”