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More flexibility, more unwell?

Is greater freedom and flexibility at work causing a greater absence problem?

I read an article last week about cultures and how, although there’s lots of talk of the likes of Netflix and Zappos being the new best cultural thing, people still enjoy an element of structure and control around their workplaces. The key message of the piece was about the need to have a balance of both. It said that, as with most things in life, it’s unlikely you’ll find success in only one OR the other, we need both. The Goldilocksian effect – not too structured, not too relaxed but just right.

As much as we talk of hierarchy-free, adult-adult relationships in work, there is no avoiding the fact that someone is in charge, and that person in charge will make decisions which determine whether someone else keeps their job or not. This has a major impact on what we do, how we feel and how we think.

So, as we enter a workplace where greater freedom is bestowed, this can feel a bit weird – especially for those who’ve grown up with more traditional parenting at home and more traditional leadership and hierarchical cultures in the workplace – this new thing of ‘you’re in control, you choose, you’re an adult in this relationship’ is just a bit odd.

From our brain’s perspective it doesn’t make sense. We had all the pieces of the workplace puzzle clearly assembled in our minds and now someone’s come along and messed them all up, taking a few pieces away and not really giving any new ones back to take their place. Or if they do give some new ones the images aren’t very clear.

To our brain, this is a bit scary, a bit disorientating – well, of course it is, it’s change afterall and we know the effect change has on us (or some variation on this particular curve).

For those in senior positions this merging of work and home has been a feature for many years – it’s the normal pattern, part of the deal as you move up the chain, the trade-off for higher rewards. Similarly for those who choose self-employment. They generally know that this is how it might go, or they might choose this route with the express intention of more easily mixing home and work lives together.

But for others, this is new territory.

As cost cutting continues, layers of management are removed and technology continues to play a huge part of in our lives, this flexible merging of work and life is seeping further down organisations. Work can be anytime, anywhere.

What hasn’t caught up with this trend is our habits and thought patterns. Those jigsaw pieces haven’t yet been found, or their images haven’t yet become clear.

When in the past the boss would swing by your desk and make a request, you’d say ‘Yes Mr Smith, when do you need that by?’ Then some, but not all, evolved to ‘sounds great Bob, can I just check where that fits with my other priorities to make sure I’m focused on the right things’. And now, Bob appears (in his virtual state) making requests at the breakfast table, while you’re putting the kids to bed, or while you’re at the gym in the evening.

For some (those who’ve found new puzzle pieces) this is fine, they’ll put the device down and park the work until a time when they feel it fits with their personal priorities – which might mean not doing anything until the next work day starts. Possibly with a ‘holding’ note of acknowledgement and timescales to act.

For others (whose puzzle pieces are still missing) this request will cause them to feel anxious, they feel that they must respond now – thinking that if they don’t they’ll be in trouble or that someone else will respond and get that promotion / pay rise / recognition. They’ll be distracted from whatever else they’re doing until they’ve sorted this. Getting irritable with loved ones who don’t understand where this outburst has come from. Relationships suffer. People become unhappy. Unhappy people become ill more. And it’s happening everywhere. At the CIPD annual conference, Cary Cooper talked of how mental health costs the UK £70bn a year, or just over £1000 per employee per year with only 2 in 5 people working at peak performance. Scary numbers. And maybe a hint at an opportunity to shift the productivity challenge in the UK!

So no, all our absence policies and procedures, all the free fruit and gym passes, aren’t going to remove an absence problem that’s connected to a shift in how we work. What we really need is a shift in mindset. We need to reprogram our minds to this new world where work and life can be more muddled up, helping people create a new, clear puzzle so that they feel empowered to make choices about how much their work mixes in with home life.

And, of course, if you’re going to help people with this mindset shift, they need to feel safe and able to trust that it really is OK. It has to be true that they won’t be in trouble, that they won’t miss out on promotions / pay rises / recognition. It has to be supported by a leadership culture and an HR strategy that shows you believe it’s a good thing for people to make healthy choices about when they work – and that they will still have a job if they don’t work at 9pm*. Maybe even role modelled by the senior leaders themselves?

Or you might choose a culture and strategy that says ‘we will reward people with promotions and pay rises if they put the hours in’ – just be aware that it’s unlikely to solve your absence problem as the over-work results in less-well people, or worse.

What do you want for your organisation?
And what message are you currently sending?

*Caveat to all of this – if the person isn’t able to achieve what’s needed for their role in the hours they’re paid to work then there are other conversations to be had about personal effectiveness, skills gaps, team structure, team capability, work design, or possibly the person’s just in the wrong job.

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