A bird's eye view of a ginger cat on a table with its paws on a laptop and a sun hat and palm leaves around it. to show concept of flexible working.
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You spend 90,000 hours at work – here’s why it should be flexible

20 Jun 2024

Boston University’s Dr Monica Wang explains why flexible working arrangements are so important for our mental health.

A version of this article was originally published by The Conversation (CC BY-ND 4.0)

When employees don’t have control over their work schedules, it’s not just morale that suffers – mental health takes a hit too. That’s what my colleagues and I discovered in a study recently published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open.

As a public health expert, I know that the way our jobs are designed can affect our wellbeing. Research has shown that flexibility, security and autonomy in the workplace are strong determinants of health.

To understand how powerful they are, my colleagues and I looked at the 2021 National Health Interview Survey, a major data collection initiative at the National Center for Health Statistics. We analysed responses from 18,144 working adults across the US, teasing out how job flexibility and security may be linked with mental health.

The respondents were asked how easily they could change their work schedule to do things important to them or their family, whether their work schedule changed on a regular basis, and how far in advance they usually knew their schedules. They also rated their perceived risk of losing their job in the next 12 months.

We found that workers who had more flexible work arrangements were less likely to report feelings of depression, hopelessness and anxiety. Similarly, those with greater job security were at lower risk of mental health challenges. We also found that higher job security was linked with fewer instances of missing work over the past year.

Why it matters

The average full-time worker dedicates a third of their lifetime waking hours to work. Given that fact, understanding how job design affects mental health is key to developing policies that bolster wellbeing.

It’s clear why employers should care: When workers aren’t feeling well mentally, they’re less productive and more likely to miss work. Their creativitycollaboration and ability to meet job demands also suffer, hurting the entire organisation.

The impact of job-related stress extends beyond the workplace, affecting families, communities and healthcare systems. People grappling with work-related mental health challenges often require multiple forms of support, such as access to counselling, medication and social services. Not addressing these needs comprehensively can cause serious long-term consequences, including reduced quality of life and increased healthcare costs.

It’s important to note that the Covid-19 pandemic worsened mental health disparities and that individuals in lower-wage positions, front-line workers and people in marginalised communities continue to face additional challenges. In this context, understanding exactly how job and work design can affect people’s mental health is all the more important.

What’s next

My research team plans to examine how race and gender affect the links between job flexibility, job security and mental health.

Previous research suggests that women and people of colour experience unique workplace stressors that harm their mental wellbeing. For instance, women continue to face barriers to career advancementunequal pay and a higher burden of unpaid care work.

Similarly, employees of colour often experience discriminationmicroaggressions and limited opportunities for professional growth at work, all of which can harm mental health. Understanding gender and racial differences will help researchers and organisations develop targeted interventions and policy recommendations.

Mental health challenges are far from rare: More than 50m Americans, or nearly 1-in-5 adults, live with mental illness. By creating workplaces that prioritise employee wellbeing – through flexible work arrangements, supportive policies and access to mental health resources – organisations can help build a healthier society.

By Dr Monica Wang

Dr Wang is an associate professor of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health and an adjunct associate professor of health policy and management at the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health. She is a recognised researcher, educator and thought leader on health equity, racial justice and community-based research targeting chronic diseases.

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