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Can flexible work hurt your health?

Flexible work is deeply valued by many, allowing work to be adapted to the requirements of life.

Some government agencies have put a lot of effort into encouraging staff to take advantage of flex options — and some are lagging — but it’s popular with those given the opportunity.

Yet there might also be downsides, as the lines separating work from the rest of life can become blurred.

That’s the conclusion of UNSW Canberra Associate Professor Gemma Carey and Public Service Research Group research fellow Eleanor Malbon in a review paper published in the Australia and New Zealand School of Government’s Evidence Base journal.

While the evidence is mixed — at least in part because flexibility can apply to people’s lives in many different ways — flexible work can increase time pressures, impacting on both mental and physical health.

The authors distinguish between organisational flexibility — where the employee is given little choice about when they work, as in casual and on-demand work — and worker flexibility, where the employee has a greater measure of control over when or where they work.

Organisational flexibility tends to be associated with poorer paid and lower status work, and can increase things like anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that a lack of control in the workplace tends to have negative impacts, and it’s hardly surprising that not knowing whether you’ll have a job next week would have a negative impact on mental health. Working strange hours can also be socially isolating and make it difficult to care for children.

Worker flexibility is often found in white collar jobs, such as in the public service. Yet while such policies increase worker control, and thus have many positive impacts, it is not as simple as flexibility always making life better.

Given how easy it is to work remotely these days, many employees always, in theory, have the ability to be working. For some, this leads to putting in much longer hours than they would if given the clearer boundaries afforded by arriving at the office at 9am and leaving at 5pm. Flexibility, even on your own terms, can lead to “working long hours, overtime, and a sense that work is never completely separate from home life”, note Carey and Malbon.

This is especially the case if you have a large workload.

“Some emerging work suggests that worker autonomy over schedules can mitigate the negative effects of flexibility, however control over work time combined with increased demands on the worker can lead to the blurring of work and home life,” they argue.

Yet even if you do not end up putting in more hours overall but balance different activities throughout the day, research suggests that splitting up your time between different activities can lead to increased stress levels and feeling “rushed”. Not being able to fully engage with what’s in front of you reduces productivity.

If you are starved for time — or even just feel like you are — you’re less likely to cook healthy food and do enough exercise.

“Within public health, time is considered a mediator of basic health behaviours which have been linked to obesity and its related conditions, including healthy eating and physical activity. These require careful scheduling and appropriate time allocation. Changes to working time can therefore have major effects on health due to limiting the amount of time that can be spent on healthy protecting behaviours (i.e. exercise, preparing healthy food).”

While flexibility can make it easier to attend doctors’ appointments during the workday or find the time to keep fit, others may be less likely to manage their health well, write Malbon and Carey, as research indicates that “time poverty may be more important than income poverty as a barrier to regular physical activity.”

The health dimensions of work flexibility need greater consideration in policy design, they think.

“Whilst there are multiple and complex barriers to healthy eating and physical activity, working time is part of the mix, and there is clearly a need for additional regulations to protect and promote the health of workers. Moreover, the evidence suggests that the removal of regulations that limit hours, provide a premium for working unsociable hours, and provide stability to working time arrangements would have poor impacts on health and be costly to governments due to an increased burden on the health system.”

So while flexibility can offer significant benefits, it also has the potential to worsen the effects of overwork, potentially damaging both physical and mental health.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne. He's previously written for The Guardian and Crikey and holds a masters in international relations.