Hundreds of thousands of American workers struggle with mental health problems that may affect everything from their moods and energy levels to their productivity and physical health. And, in the past, their challenges were often ignored.

Executives and managers are starting to pay more attention to the issue now, thanks in part to educational efforts that have come through events like Mental Health Awareness Month, which is recognized every year in May.

However, one tool companies can use to help improve workers’ mental health is frequently overlooked: the power of flexibility.

The control that comes through work flex can improve the mental health of all workers, whether they are struggling with illnesses or trying to manage the anxiety that sometimes comes as they attempt to build balanced lives.

According to an article from Simplyhealth, several studies show that letting people determine their own working patterns can significantly boost their mental well-being.

In one study, the article says, “Police officers who were able to change their starting time at work experienced big improvements in their mental health compared to those starting work at a fixed time. Another survey by Regus found that staff are more energized and motivated when they have flexi-working. A more motivated workforce means a happier and more productive workforce. It’s a win-win for both sides.”

When FlexJobs asked more than 2,000 people in a survey how flexible work would help their health and happiness, the responses supported this research. An overwhelming 90% of respondents said a flexible job would decrease their stress levels, and 99% said it would make them happier in general.

The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College makes similar statements about the effects of flexibility on stress reduction. “A study of more than 19,000 employees at nine distinct companies … showed that stress and burnout was lower among workers engaged in all types of workplace flexibility arrangements,” the Sloan Center site says. “Similarly, a study of employees in a large multinational company found that greater levels of flexibility were associated with better health: that is, with less self-reported stress and strain, and better physical health.”

Clearly, flexibility is a boon to the mental health of the average worker. But when people are suffering from serious mental illnesses, flex can be even more important.

“Suffering from a mental illness can be difficult enough. But to top things off, sufferers have to deal with a fluctuating mind that won’t always accommodate itself to a nine-to-five day,” the Simplyhealth article says. “So simple things like letting an employee dial in to a meeting from home, instead of attending in person, can make all the difference to their productivity. Certain medications can also make people groggy in the mornings. So by tailoring your team member’s work hours to a time that suits them, you’ll get the most out of them.”

Allowing people with mental illnesses to telecommute can effectively transform what would have been sick days into productive workdays. And if they have flexibility in the hours they work, they can more easily schedule appointments to get necessary treatment.

Whether workers are struggling with a diagnosed illness or just trying to manage the stresses of everyday life, work flex can help. People who are given flexible work options are often happier and have better work-life balance, which means their mental health can improve. Healthier workers are likely to be more productive and loyal than those who are miserable or unable to get the help they need.

If your company hasn’t realized the benefits of flexwork to mental health, Mental Health Awareness Month gives you the perfect opportunity to let your manager in on the secret. When you do, be sure to let them know that flexibility works—for everyone.

Photo Credit: bigstockphoto.com

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