The advantages of flexible working

With studies showing that flexible working can reduce short-term sickness absence, Jamin Robertson also reports diminished stress among parents working flexibly

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Studies have shown flexible working arrangements can reduce short-term sickness absence levels.

Parents that are able to work flexibly report lower stress levels because they can manageably juggle work and domestic responsibilities.

Flexible working can have a positive effect on employee attitudes and morale.

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Flexible working is often just the tonic for working parents looking to better align the demands of work and family. And with Britain’s long hours culture contributing to stress, exhaustion and depression among staff, more malleable arrangements can lead to a healthier workforce and business.

Employee Benefits/HSA healthcare research 2005 showed that work-life balance and flexible working arrangements both appeared in the top three benefits that employers believe help to reduce sickness absence. A further 80%, meanwhile, turn to flexible working policies as a means of combating workplace stress.

Lynette Swift, managing director of flexible working specialists Swiftwork, says: "Basically, with things competing for priority in life, being able to manage domestic responsibilities removes a lot of stress. Relatively minor changes can make all the difference. Without exception, [employers adopting flexible working] have seen self-certified sickness absence rates go down." Of the work-life balance and flexible working projects undertaken by her consultancy, Swift says that in every case employers have seen reduced sickness and absenteeism levels, while morale and productivity have improved.

Jo Morris, senior equality and employment rights officer at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) also rates flexible working as a key employee benefit. "Workers can complement each other. Parents can work around the school day, while older people work because they don’t want that time off."

Last summer’s Department of Trade and Industry’s (DTI) Work-life balance challenge closed with a study that showed a fall of 50% in staff absence rates among participating employers, concluding that greater choice over working arrangements gives employees a better sense of wellbeing.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s survey Flexible working: Impact and implementation, meanwhile, found that 70% of employers noticed a lift in staff motivation after introducing work-life balance policies.

Pilot studies have also recorded the merits in allowing employees to roster their own working hours. "In one social services organisation they adopted self-rostering and it looked horrific. No manager would create a roster like that. But absence rates came right down to virtually zero, and now the manager has three extra days a month [freed up]. It’s improved the manager’s life as well," says Swift.

John Dean, sales and distribution manager for healthcare provider HSA, points out that flexible working can bring health benefits, but only when it is structured around employees’ needs, and not imposed at the behest of the employer. "I have control over my diary. Junior staff don’t have the facility to do that. [Flexible working] gives them control over their environment, so if they are not feeling happy they can change it."

Despite glowing reports from organisations that have benefited from flexible working arrangements, employers should bear in mind that it will not suit all cultures. Where it does fit, however, employers can gain real benefits in terms of improved employee wellbeing. Swift concludes: "People are managing themselves better rather than being managed. It makes them feel better, and because they want it to work they ensure it does."