As we’ve moved into another year it’s good time to think about our work/ life balance and some practical advice. The Mental Health Foundation suggests the pressure of an increasingly demanding work culture in the UK is perhaps the biggest and most pressing challenge to the mental health of the general population. The cumulative effect of increased working hours is having an important effect on the lifestyle of a huge number of people, which is likely to prove damaging to their mental well-being. They are concerned that a sizeable group of people are neglecting the factors in their lives that make them resistant or resilient to mental health problems.
One in six of us will experience a mental health problem in any given week, and our mental health awareness day research this year suggests that a majority of Britons have experienced some kind of mental health problem, with young adults especially open about this when surveyed.
What’s clear then is that in our workplaces and in our circles of friends, there are people living with mental health problems, or just keeping themselves afloat, whether we know it or not.
Work related stress already costs Britain 10.4 million working days per year.
A Mental Health Foundation survey found:
- one third of respondents feel unhappy or very unhappy about the time they devote to work
- more than 40% of employees are neglecting other aspects of their life because of work, which may increase their vulnerability to mental health problems
- when working long hours more than a quarter of employees feel depressed (27%), one third feel anxious (34%), and more than half feel irritable (58%)
- the more hours you spend at work, the more hours outside of work you are likely to spend thinking or worrying about it
- as a person’s weekly hours increase, so do their feelings of unhappiness
- many more women report unhappiness than men (42% of women compared with 29% of men), which is probably a consequence of competing life roles and more pressure to ‘juggle’
- nearly two thirds of employees have experienced a negative effect on their personal life, including lack of personal development, physical and mental health problems, and poor relationships and poor home life.
The following actions may help:
- Take personal responsibility for your work-life balance. This includes speaking up when work expectations and demands are too much. Employers need to be aware of where the pressures lie in order to address them.
- Try to ‘work smart, not long’. This involves tight prioritisation – allowing yourself a certain amount of time per task – and trying not to get caught up in less productive activities, such as unstructured meetings that tend to take up lots of time.
- Take proper breaks at work, for example by taking at least half an hour for lunch and getting out of the workplace if you can.
- Try to ensure that a line is drawn between work and leisure. If you do need to bring work home try to ensure that you only work in a certain area of your home – and can close the door on it.
- Take seriously the link between work-related stress and mental ill health. Try to reduce stress, for example through exercise, relaxation or hobbies.
- Recognise the importance of protective factors, including exercise, leisure activities and friendships. Try to ensure that these are not sacrificed to working longer hours, or try to ensure that you spend your spare time on these things.
- Watch out for the cumulative effect of working long hours by keeping track of your working hours over a period of weeks or months rather than days. Take account of hours spent worrying or thinking about work when assessing your work-life balance. These are a legitimate part of work and a good indicator of work-related stress. If possible, assess your work-life balance with your colleagues and with the support and involvement of managerial staff. The more visible the process, the more likely it is to have an effect.
Certain employees have the statutory right to make a flexible working request. To be eligible to make a flexible working request a person must:
- be an employee
- have worked for you continuously for at least 26 weeks on the date they make their request
- not have made another statutory request during the past 12 months
Advantages of flexible working
Flexible working: business benefits
Many employers believe that promoting flexible working makes good business sense and brings the following improvements:
- Greater cost-effectiveness and efficiency, such as savings on overheads when employees work from home or less downtime for machinery when 24-hour shifts are worked.
- The chance to have extended operating hours.
- Ability to attract a higher level of skills because the business is able to attract and retain a skilled and more diverse workforce. Also, recruitment costs are reduced.
- More job satisfaction and better staff morale.
- Reduced levels of sickness absence.
- Greater continuity as staff, who might otherwise have left, are offered hours they can manage. Many employers find that a better work-life balance has a positive impact on staff retention, and on employee relations, motivation and commitment. High rates of retention means that you keep experienced staff who can often offer a better overall service.
- Increased customer satisfaction and loyalty as a result of the above.
- Improved competitiveness, such as being able to react to changing market conditions more effectively.
Flexible working: employee benefits
The main benefit of working flexibly for your employees is that it gives them the chance to fit other commitments and activities around work and make better use of their free time.
More than half (59%) of employee respondents believe that flexible working is the most important benefit when looking for a job, according to research by Totaljobs.
Types of flexible working
There are different ways of working flexibly.
Job sharing: Two people do one job and split the hours.
Working from home: It might be possible to do some or all of the work from home or anywhere else other than the normal place of work.
Part time: Working less than full-time hours (usually by working fewer days).
Compressed hours: Working full-time hours but over fewer days.
Flexitime: The employee chooses when to start and end work (within agreed limits) but works certain ‘core hours’, for example 10am to 4pm every day.
Annualised hours: The employee has to work a certain number of hours over the year but they have some flexibility about when they work. There are sometimes ‘core hours’ which the employee regularly works each week, and they work the rest of their hours flexibly or when there’s extra demand at work.
Staggered hours: The employee has different start, finish and break times from other workers.
Phased retirement: Default retirement age has been phased out and older workers can choose when they want to retire. This means they can reduce their hours and work part time.
There are only limited reasons why your employer can refuse your statutory flexible working request. For example, because the business would be adversely affected.
If you made a non-statutory request, your employer has to be reasonable. However, they should use similar reasons for refusing to those used when a statutory request is turned down.
Even if you work in a large organisation with good written policies, individual managers can still be dismissive about whether flexible working ‘will work here’. They may lack experience of managing flexibility, have met difficulties with it in the past, or simply feel they have too few resources to make it work. Busy managers may also resist any change that they think might be disruptive or add to their own workload.
This is why it is so important to think in advance about any concerns they may come up with, have positive suggestions for how to overcome them and be able to point to possible benefits of trying a new approach.
Just because your employer may have had a negative one-off experience with flexible working, or lacks confidence or trust in managing people more flexibly, is not a good enough reason to refuse a request. Your employer must treat each application on its merits. If they refuse your request, they must show clear grounds for doing so, based on clear business reasons.
Your employer can reject a statutory flexible working request for a limited number of reasons. These are:
- planned structural changes
- the burden of additional costs
- quality or standards will suffer
- they won’t be able to recruit additional staff
- performance will suffer
- won’t be able to reorganise work among existing staff
- will struggle to meet customer demand
- lack of work during the periods you propose to work.
There are examples of each of these in the Acas guidance.
If your employer turns down your request for flexible working, they should give you a good explanation of why they believe the reason applies and why this means that they can’t agree to your request. The reason should not be discriminatory.
Your employer should also set out their appeals procedure. You may find your employer’s explanation useful if you wish to appeal against their refusal.
However, remember that while you have a right to make a request and to have it considered fairly, this doesn’t mean you are entitled to get what you want. There needs to be a consensus.
The refusal doesn’t have to be in writing but it is good practice for it to be.
Thanks to Linda Ingram who is a new Trustee for this article.