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Flexible working: Why work versus personal life hangs in the balance – the conundrum

Remote and flexible working has become a way of life in many industries as employees demand a better work life balance. However, there are signs that this miracle cure to burnout may have incubated its own disease.

Boardrooms have been falling over themselves in recent years to offer more flexible terms in order to attract the most talented employees and those ever-elusive millennials. Don’t get me wrong, it has worked to an extent. Research undertaken by ETZ Payments found that 58 per cent of UK employees believe flexible working will be the norm going forward and a study by social media platform Buffer into the State of Remote Work in 2019 found that 99% of people would prefer to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers.

Work v lifestyle in the balance 

I am a huge advocate of flexible working, not least because it allows companies to harness talent that they may not otherwise be able to secure; parents who prioritise being at the school gate, for example, or those who have come to realise that their mental health is stronger if they are able to attend the gym regularly or walk the dog at lunchtime. The problems arise when flexible workers (and, indeed, their bosses) don’t switch off.

Unlike the town or city centre office, the home office is always within reach. The laptop can be shaken into activity again with the merest flick of a key and a peaceful evening can be shattered by the shrill ting of a smartphone notification heralding an incoming work email. This of course applies to standard office types who have laptops and smartphones too, but the disconnect to the ‘normal’ workplace for those working flexibly puts them under more pressure to ‘check’ that message and respond.

This constant reminder of work cannot be good for anyone’s mental health and no matter how hard an employee may try to turn a blind eye, technology has an uncanny way of making you take notice.

Little surprise then that a recent report by Myers-Briggs shows than an ‘always on’ culture is damaging our work life balance. Touché.

How can boardrooms beat flexi burnout?

The first thing boards need to do is acknowledge the problem. A lack of delineation between the working day and the non-working day is leading to increased stress, poor performance and lack of sleep. It is having an impact on employees’ family lives, health and wellbeing. The very thing that was supposed to help is often doing the exact opposite and could ultimately lead to a talent drain in your organisation.

Secondly, be aware that some personalities are more susceptible than others. It is often those perceived as being the most productive members of your team who will be keen to answer that 11pm email or work through the night to complete a piece of work. This is where strong leadership is required. If the board is not emailing after hours, the staff will not feel obliged to do so either. Make sure the message gets through to every level of your organisation that out of hours (however you wish to define that) communications are out of bounds.

Last and definitely not least, ask yourself whether you are creating a culture in which being really, really busy is a sign of success. Is late working a badge of honour? Do those who make it into the office by 6am earn greater respect than those who roll in at 8.30 or 9am? Are those late night emails a way of ‘proving’ and/or checking (whether from the employee’s perspective or that of the employer) that staff are not taking advantage of flexible working?

Earlier this year, leadership expert Laura Boutell shared her thoughts on burnout in a Sideboard interview with Boardside. The latest evidence on the impact of flexible working on work life balance is a reminder that it is not just senior executives who are in danger of burnout, remote workers are vulnerable too and employers must do what they can to protect their wellbeing. This might include regular health and safety checks with remote workers to assess how well they are coping and what ad