Flexible Hours work pace could make you ill, studies show
Flexible working practices can do more harm than good to workers because they encourage an “always on” culture that can have a heavy psychological toll, experts have warned.
Working away from the office or part-time can isolate employees from social networks and career opportunities while fostering a “grazing” instinct that keeps dangerous stress hormones at persistently high levels, they said.
Flexible working policies can also raise the risk of poor working conditions, and create resentment among colleagues, while the blurring of lines between work and home life is stressful for some people.
The findings are a blow to advocates of more sophisticated measures for enabling people to achieve a work-life balance in rich economies that tend to overwork some people while under utilising millions of others.
With an estimated 10m working days lost to work-related stress in the UK last year, finding a good balance between the demands of home and the job now dominates concerns about the impact of work on health.
Companies and the government have responded by encouraging teleworking and working from home, flexible hours, part-time contracts, unpaid time off to look after children, and more recently experiments in shutting down emails out of working hours or shortening the working day. In 2013, two thirds of companies reported plans to increase spending on health and wellbeing policies.
But there is growing concern about the risks of such policies, said Prof Gail Kinman, an occupational health psychologist from the University of Bedfordshire and the British Psychological Association.
A particular problem is people “grazing” through work by refreshing emails and taking calls outside office hours: recent research found every time somebody performed a work task stress levels went back up.
“If you keep picking at work, worrying about it, your systems never really go down to baseline so you don’t recover properly,” said Kinman. “You might sleep, but you don’t sleep properly, the effectiveness of your immune system reduces.
“There are [also] studies that suggest people want a quick way to relax, which is when they tend to drink alcohol and might turn to comfort food.” Time for personal hobbies, exercise and healthy cooking and eating are squeezed out by work, too.
Prof Simon Wessely, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists said: “We don’t know why, but there’s pretty good evidence that, for example, there’s a link between psychological circumstances at work and heart disease.”
Another concern is the impact of new technologies that make flexible working possible. An Ofcom report this summer  found, on average, adults spend more time using technology than sleeping each day.
Work has become more intense as new technology enables, and even forces, people to work faster, do more, and multi-task, said Kinman. Her research also finds rising “presenteeism” – for example people working when they are ill.
Professional bodies like the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development and the TUC continue to advocate flexible working and similar practices. But they say there is growing recognition such policies only work when employees are given a choice.
“We know more control and autonomy is effective [in reducing stress] … but not all working practices have that outcome,” said Ksenia Zheltoukhova, a research advisor at the CIPD. Good management is also widely seen as important.
Although concern about work-life balance is prevalent, average hours worked have declined consistently over recent decades. However, the number of working couples is growing, piling pressure on households to retain time for domestic and caring obligations.
Findings vary on the scale of the overall problem of finding a work-life balance. The Office of National Statistics found more than half of British workers are satisfied with the balance of work and leisure time, while more than a quarter are dissatisfied. The Health and Safety Executive found 1.4 in 100 workers took time off for “work-related stress, depression or anxiety” last year. Some employers reported that 97% of workers struggle with work-life balance. It is a growing worry across Britain’s workforce, especially with rising job insecurity, said Sally Brett, a TUC senior employments right officer.
“There are lots of people excluded from the labour market [or] really struggling to get decent employment or projects at work because they just can’t get work that allows their caring responsibilities,” said Brett.
The biggest problem with work-life balance, however, remains not having one or the other – being unemployed or having no social network, said Wessely. “What we really need to change the work-life balance is more meaningful work and more people having more social support, less loneliness, less social isolation.”
The ad agency where work-life balance isn’t just a slogan
Walking into the small office of Heldergroen is a disorientating experience. The entrance is dominated by a large dining table, beyond an espresso machine hisses on an elegant kitchen bar, scented candles are burning, the walls are covered in flattened car wrecks. And past the table a dozen people work at long desks on chains.
The desks are suspended from the ceiling so they can be raised – computers, papers and all – for staff lunches, yoga classes or evening events like a recent programme of talks on the food chain. They are the most visual evidence of a pervading effort by co-founder Sander Veenendaal to help staff, and himself, find a good work-life balance.
The list of idiosyncrasies is long: staff at the advertising and brand agency get two weeks more than the normal holiday allowance, they almost never work late, pay negotiations start with Veenedaal saying yes to whatever employees demand, and he is working on a job contract based on a poem.
But unusually for a company pursuing better working conditions, staff have never been given devices to work or even check email outside office hours.
Veenendaal, 39, is strongly opposed to what he calls the “new way of work”, often promoted by IT companies selling smartphones and tablets. “Because everybody can work everywhere, and I don’t believe in it”, he says. “Particularly in advertising, because you have to work together. And it’s having this stress as well.”
Veenendaal left school with no qualifications, set up an internet agency that did live broadcasts by knocking on the doors of local homes to borrow telephone lines, and swatted up on running a business by reading Corporate Finance for Dummies. He set up Heldergroen, which translates as Bright Green, in 2003 – based first in Utrecht and later in the tiny city of Haarlem on the North Sea coast near Amsterdam.
Veenendaal admits his interest in work-life balance started with his own experience of working too hard and becoming stressed. A friend and mentor advised him to close the agency for three weeks in the summer and two weeks at Christmas, and plan free time two to three evenings a week. Impossible, said the entrepreneur to each suggestion. “Yes it is possible,” was the reply.
That advice still shapes the working year at Heldergroen. To create free evenings, Veenendaal limited the working day from 9am to 6pm. After having children (now aged two and four), he moved the working day forward 15 minutes to fit in with common childcare hours.
The business is not a free ride for staff, though: they are expected to focus in the office and, apart from essential personal matters, avoid distractions like WhatsApp instant messaging. Staff who ask for a higher salary are told they can have it, but in return Veenendaal spells out what he expects them to achieve and asks if they are happy to take on the responsibility.
The business appears successful and is apparently profitable. Could it be more profitable if staff worked longer or harder? “Yes,” says Veenendaal. “But is it worth it? I don’t think so. I think you have to measure and compare your profit with the things you can’t do. I can be very successful, but If I wasn’t at home with my kids it costs me something.”