How flexible working can boost staff wellbeing

In 2013, more than 20 employers, including B&Q, Ford and Mitie, joined forces to launch the Agile Future Forum, which aims to develop practical support to increase flexible-working practices across the UK.


If you read nothing else, read this…

  • The right to request flexible working was extended to all UK employees on 30 June 2014.
  • Flexible working options allow staff to be more flexible about managing their health, whether it be controlling the times they take medication, frequent the gym or cycle to work.
  • Flexible working allows employees to balance their personal life and working life.

The government has also joined the effort through its Children and Families Bill, which legislates that, from 30 June 2014, all UK employees have the right to request flexible working from their employer.

Employment minister Jo Swinson says: “We want to change the culture around flexible working so that it becomes the norm in many workplaces, not a special case.

“The latest extension of the right to request to all employees will be beneficial for employers because they will reap the benefits of a motivated and efficient workforce.”

The term flexible working is used to describe many different styles of working, including part-time hours, job sharing, extended hours, working from home, compressed hours and flexi-time.

Dr Mark Winwood, clinical director of psychological services at Axa PPP Healthcare, says: “It can mean a whole range of different things, and different types of arrangement will suit different people.

“The more control any of us feel we have over our working lives, the better we feel about work. Being allowed to choose hours that suit them and the business gives employees the ultimate sense of control.”

The concept of flexible working has evolved over the past decade to be part of an employer’s overall engagement and wellbeing agenda.

Sarah Henchoz, partner at law firm Allen and Overy, says: “It’s good for retention, it’s good for morale and it gives people the ability to have more balance, which is good from a health perspective. As long as employers can balance that with the needs of the business, then it’s a win-win situation for everybody.”

Family-friendly policies

Flexible-working arrangements were first introduced to create more family-friendly working environments. Anne Longfield, chief executive of charity 4Children, says: “The likes of John Lewis, Royal Mail, Barclays and Danone all proudly espouse their family-friendly credentials, not just because it sends a positive message about their ethics and values, but also because it makes excellent business sense.” 

Swinson adds: “Flexible working has helped many people to balance their caring responsibilities with work, and has helped stamp out the notion that starting or supporting a family means the end of your working career.”

More and more employees will also struggle to balance eldercare responsibilities with their working life. Winwood adds: “Going forward, so much more of the workforce are going to be full-time carers, as well as full-time employees.”

Jonathan Swan, research and policy manager at Working Families, says that with these increased caring responsibilities, the UK will gradually move towards a flexible lifestyle approach.

This means an employee might work full-time for the first part of their career, reduce their hours when they start a family, come back to regular hours, work flexibly again to manage care for an elderly relative, then return to work full-time before gradually reducing hours as they approach retirement. 

“It is an approach where there are troughs and peaks, where people’s needs change and working arrangements change to fit those needs,” says Swan.

Alastair Denton, managing director at Edenred, adds: “[Flexible working] enables a much more controlled way for a family to manage their life well. It means that partners have the ability to share things, and that is a massive mental health positive, physical health positive and child nurturing positive as well.”

Workplace stress and mental wellbeing

The opportunity to work flexibly also enables employees to work at their optimum times. Axa’s Winwood references individual body clocks, which mean that different times of the day suit different people.

“We don’t all fit into that nine-to-five pattern,” he says. “Flexible working will allow morning people to seize the opportunity to work in the morning.

“People with psychological conditions might also benefit from flexible working, in order for them to complete various interventions. Someone with bipolar disorder will take some medications that can make them feel very groggy in the morning. If they are able to work slightly later, it would benefit them and the organisation.”

Denton adds: “Stress is a massive issue in the workplace. If [employers] give employees flexibility that reduces that level of stress, the long-term wellbeing of the workplace will be improved.”

Physical wellbeing

Flexible-working opportunities can also help employees’ physical wellbeing, for instance where employers provide staff with morning or lunch-time exercise classes, or offer more flexible hours to enable them to go to the gym or commute by bike.

“Flexible working will allow people to take part in the many wellbeing-at-work initiatives employers are promoting at the moment,” says Winwood. “It will give people more time to do exercise, go to early morning gym sessions, go for a run or go to the shops to buy healthy food.

“If an employer can change the times when people are working, they can also use different modes of transport to get to the office. If it’s not rush hour, they might be more confident to get on their bikes to get to work.”

Flexible working can also be a time-saver, says Allen and Overy’s Henchoz. “Employees with long commutes can get more hours back in their days or fit jobs in, such as medical appointments or having the boiler fitted,” she says. “From those perspectives, you can’t see it as being detrimental to health; you can only see it as positive.”

Ultimately, flexible working allows staff to balance their home and working lives in a way that suits them. Winwood adds: “It is really important to balance the spiritual and healthy you, family and important relationships, and work in equal harmony.

“If work is taking over the other two, just by virtue of the timeframe, the other two bits of your triangle are not going to be very enriched. Flexible working, on the whole, will allow people to have a more balanced life.”

Flexible working clearly benefits employees’ work-life balance, mental wellbeing and physical health, but it also has benefits for employers. Swan adds: “The most forward-looking organisations see it as working with the grain of employees’ lives, rather than just imposing a set of policies that they may or may not take up.

“They see it as a more holistic thing, dovetailing working life with the way that people actually live.”

Case study: Northern Trust


Northern Trust, which has 1,400 employees in the UK and a workforce that is 35% female, introduced a range of work-life balance initiatives in 2012 with a view to increase flexible working, raise its return-to-work ratio among working mothers, and improve employee engagement and productivity.

The firm’s WorkSmart programme, which enables eligible staff to take up flexible-working arrangements, offered participants, their managers and extended teams training on how to work remotely and effectively.

Jessamy McGregor, associate consultant, diversity and inclusion at Northern Trust, says: “We asked ‘why not?’ rather than ‘why?’ when considering flexible-working requests.

“We consider all requests equally and have offered flexible working to 120 employees under the WorkSmart programme, in addition to standard flexible-working requests.”

The programme requires employees to work at home one day a week and in the office one day a week, and then the team agrees mutually convenient working arrangements for the remaining days.

“Staff enjoy the fact that they are empowered to better manage their workload, working in environments where they feel more productive and engaged,” says McGregor. “There is also a significant financial and physical benefit of spending less time commuting and less on the cost of travel.”

In 2012, Northern Trust also introduced access to My Family Care’s website, Work+Family Space, which offers webinars and guides about work-life balance.

The initiatives have proved a success for Northern Trust. In its 2013 employee engagement survey, 75% of respondents felt they had sufficient flexibility to meet personal and family needs. Also last year, 86% of mothers returned to work following maternity leave.

Northern Trust won the award for ‘Best work-life balance strategy’ at the Employee Benefits Awards 2014.

Denise Keating: Flexibility increases wellbeing

Denise Keating - ENEI

Employers typically offer formal flexible-working policies, such as leave for parents, and flexibility around sabbatical or other opportunities.

The reality is that flexible working is driven only when an employee has a need, such as childcare and eldercare.

On the other hand, agile working is where an employer provides employees with flexibility in determining how, when and where they work. If employees have autonomy over how and where they work, employers will get increased productivity, performance and engagement.

If we provide employees with agility, we can create a lot of flexibility around how we operate our workspaces and our work environments. The vision is to get organisations to a place where staff determine where, when and how they work, and organisations provide environments where they can come together for creativity, socialisation and innovation.

That’s much more than making the work environment work in an efficient way. It’s also about allowing individuals enough flexibility that they feel they have autonomy and are much more satisfied with the way work is managed.

Organisations have a legal responsibility to accommodate needs for certain people, but the more enlightened organisations make flexibility available for all employees. It is about empowering teams to be able to adopt flexible practices that people need.

From a wellbeing point of view, flexible working removes a number of individual stresses for employees. Removing a level of individual stress allows employees to feel a stronger sense of purpose and wellbeing.

Where there is less flexibility, an individual feels they are trying to juggle too many things. Once you take the stresses out of people’s lives and recognise that people have fuller lives than just being at work, then that leads to increased wellbeing.

Denise Keating, chief executive, Employers Network for Equality and Inclusion (Enei)