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Flexible Work Policies: Adapting How, When, and Where People Work

A portrait of Dr. Philip OsteenIn a time when many people find themselves in the position of working from home, it can be important to stop and consider some of the possible implications of this kind of work.  At least, that’s what Philip Osteen, director of the Social Research Institute and an associate professor in the University of Utah College of Social Work, thinks. 

In a study funded by the Wellcome Trust, a nonprofit organization headquartered in the UK dedicated to solving urgent health challenges, Dr. Osteen—along with Professor Jodi Frey at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and Professor Dina Wilke at Florida State University’s College of Social Work—conducted an extensive scientific review of research related to flexible work policies in the workplace.  Their review looked specifically at how flexible work options affect employee mental health.  Flexible work options include things like working from home, working a compressed work week, flexible start and stop times, job sharing, and the ability to take time off in the middle of the day for something like a doctor’s appointment or school pickup and then returning to work later.

The overarching finding of their research was that flex policies improve work-life integration—the ability to manage both work and personal responsibilities successfully.  Improved work-life integration, in turn, improves employee mental health.  “Life isn’t segmented.  Work life can bleed into personal life and vice versa,” said Dr. Osteen.  “When people are able to manage and reduce this bleed, employees are more productive in all areas of their lives; there’s less absenteeism, less presenteeism [being physically present, but not engaged in productive work], and better overall health.”

Another impactful finding from the review was related to why work adjustments are made.  Dr. Osteen and his colleagues found that whether or not the flexible option was forced or chosen significantly impacted the benefit of the policies.  “Flexibility in work can be very beneficial—when it’s chosen.  If a worker is forced to implement a specific flex policy, we see an adverse effect on mental health,” said Dr. Osteen.  “People value choice.” 

Dr. Osteen was quick to point out that most flexible work policies are sector-specific.  Due to the in-person nature of the jobs, most flexible work options aren’t available to blue collar and hourly workers.  Instead, they benefit white collar and pink collar employees—workers who are already privileged in the workforce.  “We must understand that there is not equity in flexible work policies.  Not all industries or job positions can accommodate these policies, particularly the opportunity to work from home.  We see this further emphasized in the classification of ‘essential workers’ during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, even if flexible work policies are not available, managers can still take productive steps in supporting workers in others ways, such as professional development opportunities.”

Several clear, best practice recommendations emerged from the review to help guide organizations that are interested in implementing a flexible work option of their own. 

First, training is key—both for managers and across the workforce.  For supervisors, it’s mostly a matter of education around available flex options, and then empowering them to implement changes.  “It’s important to allow individual managers to make adjustments rather than being stuck waiting for higher administration,” said Dr. Osteen.  General workforce training should primarily focus on both fighting against the stigmas surrounding mental health issues and helping workers recognize when a co-worker might be struggling and could use additional support.  “Providing mental health awareness training to everyone in a workforce is a powerful way to communicate the importance of prioritizing all forms of health.”

Second, is the need for cooperative communication strategies.  It’s important to set up formal structures for administration and employees to talk about and agree upon which polices to offer.  Dr. Osteen noted there is no one-size-fits-all set of policies that will make sense in every organization.  Different industries, different workforces, even different individuals in the same workforce, have different needs and preferences.  Younger workers tend to value the independence of teleworking, while older workers tend to prefer the ability to shift work hours so they aren’t required to use vacation benefits for daytime interruptions.  “Employers must understand the needs of their workforce vary by age,” said Dr. Osteen.  He also stressed the value of collaboration, at every level, in deciding which policies are most appropriate for the workforce.  “This is about empowering workers to adapt when, where, and how they work.” 

Finally, there needs to be an organizational culture that prioritizes health and wellbeing.  Part of this is ensuring there are written HR policies and that they are widely accessible.  But the mere presence of these policies is not enough, warns Dr. Osteen.  Genuine support and advocacy from the administration, normalizing use of flex policies, is also essential.  “The message,” he said, “should be that the use of flex policies is the norm, something that we, the organizational leadership, expect you to use for your health.  Having flexible policies that employees feel they can’t use—for whatever reasons—is worse for people’s mental health than if there are no policies at all.” 

With reviewed studies coming out of ten different countries—including high-density countries like Korea, Germany, India, and the United States—these results are significant enough that Dr. Osteen and his colleagues presented them at the World Economic Forum in January.  “We reviewed more than a hundred studies with broad international representation,” said Dr. Osteen.  “Results like this speak to global patterns in understanding how flexible work policies can benefit workers.  It’s exciting to be part of research that has potential for that kind of far-reaching impact.”

Last Updated: 4/14/21