Work Flexibility Can Improve Mental Health--and the Health of Your Company

06/03/2015 05:43 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

One of my colleagues, Carolyn, spent 20 years successfully climbing the corporate ladder at her former employer, reaching the upper levels of management. She had achieved exactly what she thought she wanted. But as the hours got longer and the office politics more disheartening, she started to suffer from anxiety and panic attacks. She found it hard to go to work at all, or stay there once she did, and eventually, she couldn't even drive herself to the grocery store.

As fate would have it, the company was hurting, and she essentially offered herself up for sacrifice and was laid off. She felt relieved, as well as guilty for being a breadwinner who suddenly wasn't able to pay her son's college expenses or her house payment. But she realized that her job wasn't worth losing her mental health for, even if it meant tightening their belts financially.

Stories like Carolyn's are all too common. For almost 20 years, stress-related issues in the workplace have been on the rise, to the point where "less than one-third of Americans are happy with their work," according to Mental Health America, whose Annual Conference kicks off this week in Arlington, Virginia. "Stress from work can also impact [your] family life, mental health, and even increase risks for chronic illnesses and heart attacks."


Here are four reasons work flexibility is critical for workers' mental health--and why businesses should pay attention.


1) The cost of work-related mental health issues is large and growing.

Mental Health America estimates that mental illness and substance abuse-related issues cost employers $80 to $100 billion. It's clear that mental health impacts society and the economy, from absences and lost productivity to chronic unemployment and difficulty with retention. It's time for employers to realize just how much mental health at work can impact the bottom line.

2) Flexible work gives a sense of control to professionals.

Today's work atmospheres and technology often encourage (if not demand) 24-7 connectedness, causing work to creep into the time that used to be reserved for our personal lives. Providing flexible work options like shifting hours or working from home part-time allows professionals to use some of that same technology to have a better sense of control in their every-day lives. A recent study by Loughborough University in the UK, published in the journal of Human Relations, challenges the idea that long work hours are automatically associated with lower levels of happiness and wellbeing. Instead, they found the most important factor in lowering work-related stress levels and increasing wellbeing is the ability to set your work hours and feel in control of your schedule.

3) Workers, themselves, report improved mental health through work flexibility.

Most employees spend the majority of their waking hours at work--more than one third of their day. Reducing the friction between work and life can dramatically reduce the stress and anxiety of workers, and help to prevent mental illness from starting or progressing.

In a recent survey, FlexJobs asked over 2,000 people how having a more flexible job would impact their health and happiness:

  • 91 percent thought a flexible job would help them take better care of themselves;
  • 90 percent believed it would decrease their levels of stress;
  • 99 percent reported that a flexible job would make them a happier person in general.
4) One size truly does not fit all.

While we're slowly changing the 9-to-5 office tradition, the trend towards longer and longer hours comes with its own dangers. Katrina Alcorn, author of Maxed Out: American Moms on the Brink, says sometimes full-time (or more) simply isn't the best option for employee or employer. But the stigma associated with part-time work still pervades U.S. workplaces. Says Alcorn, "Countries like the Netherlands are leading the way by making part-time jobs a viable option for just about anyone who wants them," which is not only better for mental health, but actually helps to improve unemployment rates.

"And if you're 'lucky' enough to have to option to work part-time in the U.S., that option often comes with a stigma. Part-time workers are often seen by their coworkers as not really being committed to the work. Not only do you take a pro-rated cut in pay and benefits when you go part-time, but in many companies you may also make less per hour. It's exploitive," Alcorn insists. And it absolutely adds to the stress people feel from the constant push-pull between work and life.


Bridging Mental Health and Work Flexibility


Luckily, the tide is turning. Flexible work options are growing every year, and while I'd like to see faster growth, I believe that we are moving in the right direction. A 2014 study by SHRM found that 73 to 92 percent of human resource professionals from organizations that offer flexible work report that the flexible arrangements are successful. And 48 percent said it's likely or very likely they'll increase the number of flexwork-eligible employees at their firms over the next five years.

My colleague, Carolyn, now works flexibly, setting her own hours and working from home. Flexible work options like these are still very more often viewed as an "employee perk," but we hear from companies every day who are starting to realize that work flexibility is a smart and strategic long-term component for the health of their companies as well. Of her new, more flexible work situation, Carolyn says, "Working with management and co-workers who trust and rely upon each other, who realize how important good work is, and who recognize that work/life balance is also important, I can feel the constricting band around my chest loosening. For the first time in almost 15 years, I have found a freedom and honest pride in my work and workplace."

My hope is that the through the ongoing work of organizations like Mental Health America and 1 Million for Work Flexibility, among many others, we will help to make this the norm, rather than the exception.

-- Sara Sutton Fell is speaking at the Mental Health America conference on Wednesday, June 3, at 3:15 p.m. ET. Join 1 Million for Work Flexibility here.