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How to mitigate the hidden dangers of flexible working

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While flexible working has its benefits – APAC employees prefer it, and it helps prevent the risk of presenteeism – there are also some hidden dangers involved including the compromise of employees’ and their family’s health and well-being, warned a new study.

According to the study titled “Killing me softly: electronic communications monitoring and employee and significant-other well-being,” showed that employees do not need to spend actual time on work in their off-hours to experience harmful effects. It found the mere expectations of availability may result in anxiety, which adversely affects the health of employees and their families.

William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business, who co-authored the study, said: “The competing demands of work and non-work lives present a dilemma for employees which triggers feelings of anxiety and endangers work and personal lives.”

Co-authored by Becker; Liuba Y. Belkin, of Lehigh University; Samantha A. Conroy, of Colorado State University; and Sarah Tuskey, a Virginia Tech Ph.D. student in executive business research, the study was presented at the Academy of Management annual meeting in Chicago on August 10-14.

While flexible working is a common solution to help staff achieve a work-life balance, Becker cautioned that ‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being.

He explained that unlike work-related demands that deplete employee resources, physical and psychological, by requiring time away from home, “the insidious impact of ‘always on’ organisational culture is often unaccounted for or disguised as a benefit – increased convenience, for example, or higher autonomy and control over work-life boundaries.”

To mitigate these effects, Becker recommended three key steps employers can take.

#1 Implementing policies 
The aim of the policies should be to reduce expectations to monitor electronic communication outside of work.

#2 Establishing boundaries
If implementing policies isn’t an option, establish boundaries on when electronic communication is acceptable during off-hours by setting up off-hour email windows or schedules when employees are available to respond.

#3 Communicating organisational expectations clearly
He explained: “If the nature of a job requires email availability, such expectations should be stated formally as a part of job responsibilities.” Knowing these expectations upfront may reduce anxiety in employees and increase understanding from their family members, he added.

Additionally, organisations can guide employees in practicing mindfulness, which has been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety.

Mindfulness may help employees “be present” in family interactions, which could help reduce conflict and improve relationship satisfaction, Becker said, noting that mindfulness is within the employee’s control when email expectations are not.

He concluded: “Employees today must navigate more complex boundaries between work and family than ever before. Employer expectations during non-work hours appear to increase this burden, as employees feel an obligation to shift roles throughout their non-work time.

“Efforts to manage these expectations are more important than ever, given our findings that employees’ families are also affected by these expectations.”

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