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Don’t Overlook the Silver Lining of Flexibility and Autonomy

Pre-Covid, I was deeply worried about what was going on in many workplaces. 

I saw so many people trying to manage the expectations of always working extra hard, always ridiculously busy, sacrificing family time, relationships, and their happiness to the great altar of work. Work has frequently defined who we think we are and given top priority in everything we thought about or did.

The fallout has become increasingly concerning.

Burnout, mental health issues of anxiety and depression and increasing levels of reported loneliness reveal an undercurrent of overwhelm, sadness and despair.

Covid served to amplify much of what wasn’t working well at work and highlighted how vulnerable our mental health system was to the increase in demand for services.

But it also served to put a much needed and welcome focus on health and wellbeing in the workplace. There is a growing demand for a new holistic approach to employee health and wellbeing as a business strategy.

Studies have shown how wellbeing programs can show an ROI of between 1.3 to 5 dollars for every dollar invested and Deloitte reported that 98% of CEOs surveyed see mental health and wellbeing as remaining a priority even after the pandemic is over.

Hurrah!

They also reported in their blueprint for workplace mental health programs that the returns increase over a longer tenure i.e. 3 years or more.

So, what will make the biggest difference as we move into the working with Covid era?

 

Flexibility and Autonomy

Working from home has been a wonderful experience for some, a nightmare for others. While there appears to be a trend towards a hybrid model of working several days in the office and the others at home, the greater level of flexibility will come from changing how employees are allowed to complete their work.

There have been some reports suggesting that if people were forced to go back to the office up to 59% would choose to look for a new job that provided them the working conditions they favoured, even if that meant a smaller pay packet.

While several professions are still deeply entrenched in the charging per hour (or minute) worked, such as lawyers and accountants, others have moved to measuring output by level of contribution, rather than hours sitting in front of a desk. Flexibility is linked to a higher sense of autonomy where even the perception of having some control over the how and where you do you work is linked to lower levels of stress and increased performance.

Autonomy is about addressing the fact that as humans we all have different preferences. Having choice feels rewarding and reduces the intensity of any accompanying emotion.

Studies have shown the importance of autonomy in aged care where residents who were given a small degree of control and responsibility in choosing and then looking after a plant in their room lived longer!

But it’s also been shown that greater autonomy in the workplace is linked to increased performance, productivity, job satisfaction, engagement, innovation, creativity and drive.

Cornell University found that autonomous companies grew four times faster than traditionally managed companies while also experiencing 1/3 less staff turnover.

Google allows employees to spend 20% of their work time on personal projects, which has led to a big jump in innovative ideas and solutions.

But it’s not just about giving the keys to the Bentley to your staff and saying, “please drive carefully.”

Some direction is required so that employees understand what is being asked or expected of them. Being left to your own devices in a new role can be hugely stressful when you’re worried you might do the wrong thing and are seeking to impress your new boss.

And there will always be those who require a lot of direction. They don’t want flexibility or choice. Just tell them what is to be done and how and they will deliver.

These were the clients who frightened me the most when I worked as a GP. They would come in for a consult, nod during the conversation to demonstrate they had heard everything discussed and then return a number of months later saying, “I did everything exactly as you told me Dr Brockis.” And I was left wondering “what the heck did I say?” 

But for other clients living with chronic medical conditions such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension or heart disease I found that giving them greater responsibility for their own care paid dividends. Feeling involved in decision making especially when it concerns your own wellbeing is empowering, the conversations were deeper and more meaningful and greater self-responsibility resulted in better self-care outcomes

With stress the number one challenge cited by many in their daily work, flexibility provides a massive opportunity to change how we do our work for the better.

The concept of working 9 am to 5 pm died some years ago, but then morphed into working all hours we had our eyeballs open.

Now we’re getting the idea that working well with lower stress and greater wellbeing is not only good for the individual, it’s good for business and society as a whole.

It’s time to thrive by adopting a whole-person approach that includes increased workplace flexibility and with 94% of all UK organisations now offering some form of flexible working and Australia not far behind at 85%  this is clearly more than just a trend.

This is the way to making mental wellbeing the norm, and that’s going to make work, work a whole lot better.

Have you already introduced changes into your work practices?

Do you envisage this as “the way of the working future”?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

 

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) is now available for purchase

If psychological safety, resilience and mental wellbeing is something you’d like to find out more about, please contact me to set up a time for a chat.

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