Prof Stephen Wood: Flexible working awards autonomy to improve employee wellbeing

The ideal job is one with challenging but not excessive demands, a high degree of autonomy to meet these demands, and a supportive environment. Occupants of jobs with these characteristics will have higher levels of satisfaction and wellbeing and, in turn, may perform better and have better general health.

If flexible-working arrangements have an effect on wellbeing and work­­–life balance, it is through their impact on these defined job characteristics: the demands, autonomy and supportive environments experienced by employees.

Homeworking, flexitime, job sharing and other such flexible practices are commonly thought to be beneficial, helping employees to better juggle the demands of their work and domestic responsibilities.

However, the University of Leicester’s research, titled Work-nonwork supports, job control, work-nonwork conflict and wellbeing, published in 2018, found that flexible arrangements themselves are not the main reasons for employees’ positive wellbeing. It is, instead, the increased autonomy that flexible working provides, and the enhanced perception that management is supportive, that explains the ultimate wellbeing effect.

Flexible working can increase autonomy in a variety of ways. For example, its design may allow employees more discretion over how they prioritise tasks, or the methods of fulfilling them.

More subtly, homeworkers, or employees on flexitime, who may not regularly arrive to work at the same time as their supervisor, are not reminded first thing every day of management’s controlling presence.

Using flexible arrangements might also affect employees’ perception of how supportive their organisation is; for example, flexible working structures can convey that an employer is fair and cares for staff. Managers whose subordinates use flexible working supports may be more inclined to develop informal arrangements to accommodate domestic demands.

Increased job autonomy may enable employees to work more effectively, such as solving problems when they occur, without referring to a supervisor. This means they may not bring unsolved problems home or be stressed by them, which can be a significant contributor to work–nonwork conflict.

Similarly, the enhanced perceptions of supportive management may reduce work–nonwork conflict by reducing work-related anxieties. This was the case in my diary study of self-employed homeworkers, conducted with George Michaelides, Challenge and hindrance stressors and wellbeing-based work-nonwork interference: A diary study of portfolio workers, published in October 2015.

However, there was also a contrasting phenomenon, an unacknowledged enthusiasm-based work–nonwork conflict, whereby challenging demands generated high levels of enthusiasm, the reverse of depression, which was associated with higher levels of work–nonwork conflict.

We should not, therefore, assume that work-life imbalances always reflect stress, or that flexible work is a panacea, as demands may increase, but in ways that employees embrace.

Professor Stephen Wood is professor of management at the University of Leicester

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