Commentary: Despite flexible work arrangements, work stress has worsened
Technology-enabled flexible working has exacerbated work-life imbalance. Work now extends far beyond the office, say two observers
MELBOURNE: With technologies enabling remote working, tele-conferencing and instant email access, one would assume stress levels have reduced and work–life balance is now within reach.
Yet in a recent study by risk advisory company Willis Towers Watson, 60 per cent of employees surveyed in Singapore admitted to having above average or high levels of stress.
Another recent study by recruitment agency Robert Half showed that 25 per cent of Singaporean professionals surveyed revealed they would leave their current job for a better work–life balance.
WORK STRESS, THE WORLD’S SILENT KILLER
Regardless of our actual job or rank, we have all experienced stress at work. When managed appropriately, work stress has a positive impact on our work performance - think about the burst of adrenalin that carries you through a major project.
Work stress becomes harmful to our health and performance when the stress experience is prolonged. Factors that intensify the stress experience include working long hours in a week, facing work–family conflict (i.e., when demands at work interfere with family life and vice versa), having relatively low control over one’s work and work environment, having a lack of supervisory support, and facing high work demands such as a pressure to meet tight deadlines.
For example, prolonged intense work pressure drove an accounting lecturer at Cardiff University to commit suicide in February. His workload had increased significantly after he was made deputy section head, meaning he dedicated long hours to his work even during family time and vacation.
In studies of British, Australian and New Zealand police officers led by Professor Paula Brough at Griffith University, work stress was found to have both a physical impact (leading to difficulties with relaxing and sleeping, fatigue, migraines, stomach and heart problems) and a psychological impact (leading to people feeling constantly “on edge” or nervous, being irritable with colleagues, or perceiving core work such as assisting the public as a nuisance).
Although the stigma associated with stress is declining, many employees prefer to seek professional assistance for work stress through their own general practitioners than an employer-sponsored scheme. Many employees and managers in Singapore also tend to keep their mental health issues under wraps for fear of losing out in promotion opportunities.
Technology-enabled flexible working has only exacerbated this problem. Work now extends far beyond the office.
Most people will put in time late at night, on weekends, and even on vacation. The boundaries between work and non-work are blurred as employees struggle to “switch off”.
Employees who work remotely have also been shown to have increased mental health risk, primarily due to feelings of isolation and disconnection. Employees who thrive on feedback and encouragement would also struggle with flexible working, as they require regular social interaction and connection with their supervisors and co-workers.
However, as technology continues to push into new areas, it is likely that flexible working will continue. But that doesn’t mean that work stress has to increase.
Research has shown that flexible working is not always bad. Working mothers around the world have benefited greatly from flexible working and are now able to fulfil their professional and personal responsibilities.
Increased autonomy and control over work can potentially help employees to achieve work–life balance.
There is also a difference between having technology and managing technology. Technology should be managed effectively to ensure that its benefits aren’t outweighed by increased work stress.
Employees who set boundaries set clear expectations for those around them. For example, not answering work e-mails on the weekend or on holiday reinforces the boundary between work and non-work and ensures that your time off will not be encroached upon by others.
In the healthcare industry, millennials are using technology to craft the jobs they desire, including working different shift patterns and job-sharing with colleagues.
GIG ECONOMY NOT SO LIBERATING
The “gig economy”, comprising mainly of freelance and contracted workers, has emerged as a result of technology-enabled flexible working. The promise of being able to choose when to work is an attractive one, particularly for low-skilled workers whose jobs can be low-paid and inflexible.
Yet the “gig economy” has proven to be more inflexible than liberating. As there is no shortage of ride-sharing drivers or food delivery couriers, there are emerging reports of overworked drivers and couriers who clock in at least 12 hours a day just to get by.
The isolation and daily work stress faced by this group of workers have driven many to depression. “Gig economy” jobs that do not give workers control and offer low, unstable income are expected to be the leading cause of stress-related illnesses in the next decade.
WHAT WE CAN DO
Part of alleviating work stress comes down to changing the workplace culture. Both employers and employees have a responsibility to set parameters and actively dissuade the development of a round-the-clock work culture.
Employees need to know that taking a break and not working over the weekend is alright. Employers need to walk the talk. Seeing employers lead by example and encouraging self-care is the best way to ensure employees are comfortable taking the same liberties.
Having open, consistent dialogues about work stress and mental health will also encourage employees to speak up and share about their own experiences.
Technology can bring both benefits and possibilities, but employers and employees would have to work together to adapt. Otherwise, the advantages of technology-enabled flexible working will quickly become disadvantages.
Carys Chan is Lecturer/Assistant Professor of Management at RMIT University. Paula Brough is Professor of Organisational Psychology at Griffith University.