As we look ahead to World Mental Health Day (10 October), we should learn from the experience the pandemic forced on us and embrace the flexible workplace, writes IOSH Research Programme Lead Dr Karen Michell.
The Covid-19 pandemic forced many workers to work from home, blurring the lines between work and family life. Affected workers had to improvise on the fly, often working at poorly designed workstations (kitchen tables and sofas) while home-schooling children who’d been thrown into the mix by school closures. Workers were thrust into a living experiment for which they were poorly prepared. They were confronted with new psychosocial hazards, often denied the ability to properly disconnect from work, while juggling work and family needs.
Not surprisingly, many workers reported lower productivity, increased stress and poorer mental health during this time. The call to work from home came without the comprehensive OSH risk assessments with which OSH professionals are so familiar. We were in new territory. Yet through all the adversity, we came away with a valuable insight into a more flexible way of working.
Previously, worker requests for more flexible working arrangements had often been denied. Common reasons given included: How will managers control workers who are not in the office? How can managers be sure workers are working and not watching the latest box set? How can a manager ensure productivity without face-to-face contact? More recent negative comments around flexible working have suggested that workers want to work part-time for a full-time salary, that work from home lengthens the time to complete tasks and that it’s the not-so-good workers who tend to ask for it, seeing it as their right.
In the early days of flexible working there may have been an element of truth to some of these statements but as we’ve learnt to adapt to this new model of working and found more creative ways of managing expectations, there has been a reported increase in productivity and other positive benefits. Research describes benefits from hybrid models of working, for both employers and employees, creating a win-win situation. For organisations, flexible working has presented employers with the ability to keep the organisation running while containing running costs, reducing absenteeism and lowering staff turnover. For workers, it has meant more autonomy over their working life, choosing to work at times when they feel more creative, balancing work and family responsibilities, all the while maintaining good levels of productivity.
In addition, flexible models of working make the workplace more accessible to vulnerable workers with mobility and/or health issues to contend with. Many menopausal women explain how the workplace exacerbates menopausal symptoms and how flexible working allows them to adapt their place of work to meet their needs, thereby increasing productivity and enhancing their overall work experience. People with physical disabilities are often marginalised because just getting to work can be such a physically exhausting task. Being able to work from home eliminates this and allows them to focus their energy on work. Then there are those with Long Covid, for whom the future is unclear and whose physical and mental health will benefit from the opportunity to work more flexibly. Both socioeconomic and mental health benefits can be achieved from hybrid models of work.
Perhaps one of the problems with flexible work options previously was the challenge to stay connected with workers. Ten to 20 years ago homes did not have access to broadband networks. Now we have the technology, through platforms such as Zoom and Teams, to stay connected and facilitate hybrid models of working. Now we need innovative managers and smarter organisations to embrace the lessons we’ve learnt from our forced lockdown experiment and allow workplaces to evolve for the benefit of both the worker and the organisation.
In a time when many people are living with mental health issues it seems ethical that employers provide workplaces that meet the needs of their workers. Providing more flexible working models that allow workers to work at times that suit both them and the employer will support businesses, enabling them to prosper.
The importance of mental health has been reiterated recently through ISO 45003, which focuses on the management of psychosocial hazards in the workplace. These problems are not going to just go away so managers need to find more creative ways of controlling them; embracing the concept of the flexible workplace will be key. Ensuring worker productivity while maintaining and enhancing well-being is an organisational responsibility. I’m convinced smarter ways of working will achieve this.
We should learn from the experience the pandemic forced on us. It’s time for managers and business owners to reinvent their workplaces and facilitate hybrid working scenarios that benefit both the organisation and the worker. It is through these innovative practices that businesses will thrive as workers feel more engaged, included and mentally stronger.
Dr Karen Michell
IOSH Research Programme Lead (Occupational Health)
- The future of work: the workplace. The future of work after Covid-19.