Our mental health and our work lives are intertwined, whether we realize it or not. And often times, it takes some fairly serious consequences to make us see just how connected they really are. As an entrepreneur, I’ve built companies around two things—ideas that I deeply believe in, and people. I want to talk about the second part of that equation.
When building a company, it’s been important to me to view my employees and team members as “whole people,” acknowledging that the way people perform and contribute professionally is directly related to how happy, healthy, and supported they feel in their lives away from work.
Organizations have to shift their thinking about what it means to take care of their people by acknowledging them as whole people, and by deciding that workplace flexibility is a key piece of this rather than just a selfish warm, fuzzy benefit. It’s not just a want, it’s also a need.
Flexible work — meaning work options like telecommuting, flexible scheduling, part-time professional roles, and freelance jobs — actually plays a very direct role in people’s well-being when it comes to work, stress, and mental health.
I worked with several people who’ve experienced a mental health issue like bipolar disorder, PTSD, depression, and ADHD, and have been able to successfully manage it and meet their personal needs, thanks in part to flexible work options. Just recently, my colleague Brie discussed how she failed to pay attention to some key stress warning signs that were telling her to scale back at work.
And here on this blog, Carolyn Madvig wrote about the mental health toll she experienced in climbing the corporate ladder. Here’s part of her story, which probably feels familiar to many, many people:
“After twenty years of climbing the corporate ladder at one company, I had achieved the high status that many years of hard work had promised. I managed the largest department within my division, and I worked with a wonderful group of 45 employees. It came as something of a shock then, when I realized that being in the upper levels of management, I was now confronted with a side of the company of which I had been blissfully unaware. I realized quickly how prevalent the politics were at that level, and how those politics—not business acumen, not good work, not the good of the company—were used to make decisions. It hit me one day that all that my ambition had gotten me was a big paycheck—and for that, I had sacrificed my quality of life. By that point, I was regularly seeing a counselor, and as things at work became more stressful, and the hours longer, I began to have panic attacks. I had trouble finding the energy to go to work at all, or to stay there upon arrival. I never knew when an attack would hit, and I felt completely out of control. Things got so bleak that eventually I found I couldn’t even drive myself to the grocery store.”
Thankfully, both Carolyn and Brie were both able to utilize flexible work options to help remedy their situations. But from a company’s perspective, flexible work options like these are still very often viewed as a perk, rather than a strategy that benefits employees AND the business.
There is, however, hope. More companies than ever before are starting to realize that work flexibility is a smart and strategic long-term component to any business. And that at their core, flexible work options help make employees and companies healthier.
Here are several key stats and pieces of information that demonstrate the important connection between mental health and flexible work options:
1. The cost of work-related mental health issues is large and growing.
1MFWF supporter Mental Health America estimates that mental illness and substance abuse-related issues cost employers $80 to $100 billion. The World Economic Forum has estimated that, by 2030, the annual cost of mental illness will surpass $6 trillion.
It’s clear that mental health impacts society and the economy, from absences and lost productivity to chronic unemployment and difficulty with retention.
2. Money, work, and family responsibilities are the top three stressors in the United States.
The American Psychological Association has been tracking “Stress in America” since 2007, and in 2015, they found that, “Money and work remain the top two sources of very or somewhat significant stress, but this year, for the first time, family responsibilities emerged as the third most common stressor (54 percent).”
It’s no coincidence that there is a strong connection between these three sources of stress because, for millions of people, they are intertwined with one another. People work to make money which supports their families. But they feel a constant pull between work and family responsibilities, which leads to stress — stress that can be reduced by offering flexible work options, as you’ll see in the next statistic.
3. Professionals say flexible work options will lower their stress and improve their quality of life.
A FlexJobs survey of over 3,100 professionals found that lowered stress and improved quality of life were two of the main benefits people expect to experience if they’re able to work more flexibly. 87 percent of professionals think having a flexible job would lower their stress and 97 percent say a job with flexibility would have a positive impact on their overall quality of life. And, as Arianna Huffington has pointed out, 70 percent of companies say stress is a top problem for their companies.
4. Companies may see the positive effects of flexible work arrangements well before workers start using them.
89 percent of companies report better retention simply by offering flexible work options. That’s right — the act of implementing a flexible work program, before anyone even takes part, is enough to inspire employees to stay put, according to a survey by the Society of Human Resource Managers.
This may be because employees who have access to flexible work options immediately feel more empowered to structure their workdays in ways that better support work-life balance and well-being, which is discussed in the next statistic.
5. Flexible work options have absolutely no negative effect on workers’ output work quality.
A 2016 study published in American Sociological Review featured 867 employees at a Fortune 500 company, randomly divided into two groups. One group was kept to a traditional business hours schedule, working in the office. The second group was given some control over when and where they completed their work, being able to shift their start and end times, and work from home.
The employees who were given more control over their workdays self-reported several positive benefits to their mental well-being, including lowered stress, less psychological distress, less burnout, and increased job satisfaction.
But what about the cost to their actual work output? There was none. Employees in the flexible group worked just as many hours and completed the same quality of work as those in the non-flexible group.
When we put all of this together, it’s clear that flexible work supports professionals’ mental health AND companies’ bottom lines:
- Money, work, and family responsibilities cause stress for millions of U.S. workers today.
- Mental health-related issues cost employers billions of dollars every year.
- Flexible work options go a long way to curb that stress and promote mental well-being in the workplace.
- Implementing flexible work options has no negative effects on productivity or work quality — in fact, in most cases, business report higher levels of productivity (and other benefits mentioned at the beginning like reduced operating costs and more sustainable business practices).
This is one of the important reasons why I am such an advocate for flexible work.
I believe it can help improve the health of our nation’s workforce, as well as benefiting companies and communities at large. Most employees spend the majority of their waking hours at work— more than one third of their days. Reducing the friction between work and life can dramatically reduce the stress and anxiety of workers, and help to prevent mental illness from starting or progressing.
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