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The benefits of working flexibly for mental health and wellbeing

10 May 2019 - By Amy Prebble

When Sarah Taylor asked whether I would be interested in writing an article as part of a series aimed at destigmatising mental health in the legal profession, I jumped at the opportunity. At some point in our lives we will all have a friend, family member, colleague or our own struggle with mental illness. We all have mental health, just as we all have physical health, and it fluctuates – sometimes feeling positive, energetic and resilient; at other times feeling anxious, overwhelmed and exhausted.

In the same way that we try to prevent physical illness and promote good physical health, for example through fitness and a healthy diet, we can also promote good mental health and help prevent the onset of mental illness. One effective strategy for promoting mental health and wellbeing in the workplace is offering flexible work options.

What is flexible work?

Traditionally viewed as part-time employment for working mothers, the benefits of working flexibly for everyone are increasingly being recognised. Flexible work arrangements refers to flexibility over the time and/or place of work, and can take many different forms. It includes full-time flexible and part-time work, flexible start and finish times, remote working, job-share, fixed term, condensed working week and extended leave.

Flexible work options are important to a wide range of people for different reasons, including parents balancing work with childcare responsibilities, our ageing workforce seeking semi-retirement, entrepreneurs starting a business, people managing an illness or disability, and people pursing interests such as a sport, writing a novel or volunteering.

While flexible working enables employees to balance work with other life priorities, it also has significant business benefits for employers. These include attracting and retaining skilled talent, increasing employee engagement and reducing turnover, increased productivity and improving diversity in senior leadership. Perpetual Guardian’s four-day week trial resulted in a 20% increase in productivity, staff stress levels dropped from 45% to 38%, and work/life balance scores increased from 54% to 78%. ANZ introduced All Roles Flex in 2015, and 67% of ANZ employees now have a flexible working arrangement. In 2016, 91% of ANZ staff agreed that ‘My manager supports workplace flexibility and my efforts to balance my work and personal life’ (up from 79% in 2011) (Champions for Change).

Mental health challenges

Flexible work is not currently widespread across the legal profession, but could offer a valuable tool to help tackle mental health challenges.

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With a culture of working long hours, heavy workloads, meeting budgets, and a need to meet client expectations, lawyers are at particular risk of exhaustion, stress, and burnout.

“I go home just to sleep, I am in the office for every other minute of the day. That being said, I have only had to work two weekends over the past four months, which has been nice.” (LegalCheek quote)

A World Health Organisation (WHO)-led study estimates that depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$1 trillion each year in lost productivity. Within New Zealand, general stress and anxiety levels are up 23% across businesses. Workload is the main cause for stress, while longer working hours are also on the rise for smaller organisations. In 2016, New Zealand lost 6.6 million working days and NZ$1.51 billion due to absence (Wellness in the Workplace Survey 2017).

Promoting good mental health and wellbeing at work is critical for both individuals and employers. For individuals, it is important for a healthy, balanced lifestyle, managing stress and psychological wellbeing. For employers, it is vital for a productive and engaged workforce, and reduced absenteeism. The Health and Safety at Work Act also requires organisations to manage risks to workers – including risks to their mental health and wellbeing.

Given the high economic and personal costs that result from workplace mental illness, there are clear advantages associated with providing a mentally healthy workplace, to both help prevent an onset of mental health issues, and to support people with mental illness. A WHO-led study estimated that for every US$1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of US$4 in improved health and productivity (WHO, Mental health in the workplace, 2017).

Flexible work can help prevent mental health issues from arising

While a workplace may not be able to prevent all causes of poor mental health and wellbeing, it can take steps to help reduce some of these causes.

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The WHO has identified “inflexible working hours” as one of the key risks to mental health in the working environment. It recommends “involving employees in decision-making, conveying a feeling of control and participation; organisational practices that support a healthy work-life balance” to protect and promote mental health in the workplace. One of the key steps to workplace wellness identified in the Wellness in the Workplace Survey is: “Consider ways to reduce employee workloads or allow staff to work more flexibly to better balance that workload”.

There are clear links between employee autonomy and better mental health. When people have more control over when and how they work, they can balance their personal lives alongside professional goals more effectively. This might include physical exercise and sleep, connecting with friends or whānau, spending time with children, working on a project which gives purpose and meaning, or relaxing – all essential elements of positive mental health.

Managing personal aspirations and passions alongside professional goals helps to build self-esteem, can provide a sense of pride and promote a positive outlook, which will have benefits in the workplace. Flexible working hours promotes a sense among workers that they have the discretion to fit job-related responsibilities into their broader lives, which can contribute to less stress and burnout.

Working from home can also be an effective way of managing a heavy workload, and thanks to advances in technology, lawyers are now able to do a large part of their jobs from almost anywhere. Remote working can also enable a more efficient use of time than commuting to the office, which may be significant if you are travelling through Auckland traffic, or from Wairarapa into Wellington. A relaxed, quiet home environment can also be a welcome reprieve to concentrate away from a noisy open plan office environment.

Flexible work options can also help people address mental illness

“Flexible working options are probably the most effective strategy for meeting the workplace needs of workers with mental illness.” – Australian Human Rights Commission.

Employers have a responsibility to support employees with mental illness in either continuing or returning to work. Because there can sometimes be stigma associated with mental illness, it is important that individuals feel supported and are able to ask for flexible arrangements so that they can continue to work.

Many people want to continue working, and a lot of people can successfully manage their illness without it impacting on their work. Employment can help with recovery when flexibility is offered, which may include:

  • reducing working hours to provide time to attend medical or therapy appointments,
  • flexible working hours to avoid the stress of commuting crowds,
  • occasionally working from home,
  • taking extended leave.

For those that need time off to recover, a phased return to work may be more effective than a longer time off and returning to work full-time. Unemployment, and particularly long-term unemployment, can have a detrimental impact on mental health, and supporting individuals to return to the workforce is critical.

“Being supported by my manager when I suffered a depressive episode over ten years ago helped me quickly recover, and I have since gone on to numerous senior leadership roles…. It is clear that an important component of that care is having the freedom to work flexibly and plays an important role in creating culture of caring for employees.” Ross Jones, Vice President of Strategic Growth at Jacobs.

Mainstreaming flexible work in the legal profession

Many global and New Zealand employers are offering flexible working arrangements – Vodafone, EY, Harrison Grierson, University of Auckland, Aurecon, and Transpower to name a few. All New Zealand public service agencies will be ‘flexible-work by default’ by the end of 2020 (and several public sector organisations already are). In-house lawyers are benefitting from these arrangements, with flexible options offered to all staff.

Some law firms such as MinterEllisonRuddWatts, Juno, and Lexvoco (now known as LOD) promote flexible work arrangements. However, these firms appear to be the exception.

A 2017 study on flexible and part-time work arrangements in the Canterbury legal profession found that formal work policies on flexible arrangements rarely exist in the legal profession (University of Canterbury Socio-Legal Research Group for the Canterbury Women’s Legal Association). There was a perception that employers would not support flexible work – the majority of those surveyed without an existing arrangement believed that working flexible hours would not be possible with their current employer.

There is also a need to change the perception of flexible work to recognise the benefits for everyone, not just working mothers. The Canterbury survey received an overwhelming response from women – 90% of respondents were female and just 10% of respondents were male. The study found that men were less likely to use flexible arrangements.

Some of the challenges to implementing flexible work arrangements include overcoming presenteeism and trusting staff to get their work done without being visible. This requires a focus on output, rather than hours an employee spends in the office. It is particularly important that leaders walk the talk, and role model working flexibly. One lawyer spoke of a manager who explained that he was “old fashioned” when turning down a flexible working request, as he liked to be able to see his staff.

Given the importance of flexible work in helping to prevent and addressing mental health issues, organisations should consider mainstreaming flexible work options for everyone – regardless of gender, age, role, or reason. New Zealand’s legislation enables all employees with the right to request flexible working arrangements at any time (Employment Relations Act 2000). Employers must reply in writing and may refuse a request only if it can’t be accommodated on certain grounds.

In the absence of formal or overt policies and processes, flexible work may carry a stigma and employees may be reluctant to request flexible arrangements if they fear a negative impact on their future career progression.

Organisations need to create a culture which supports flexible working, so that all employees feel they can request a flexible arrangement to better balance their work demands or manage a mental illness while continuing to work. A supportive manager and openness to trialling new arrangements will make a significant difference.

This is particularly important in a demanding profession like law, so that employees can continue to do their best work, while living a healthy and fulfilling life. As stated by Sir John Kirwan:

“In my lifetime, I want us to move from having one of the highest suicide rates in the world to the lowest. We can be the Sir Edmund Hillary of mental health”.

Ētahi ara e rima ki te ngākau ora, help people stay mentally well.


Amy Prebble is the founder of Getaflex, a NZ-grown job platform providing flexible work for all professionals. The mission of Getaflex is to enable all people in Aotearoa to progress a professional, flexible career regardless of age, gender, industry or geographic location.

Sarah Taylor is the co-ordinator of this series, a senior lawyer, and the Director of Business Development at LOD NZ (formerly Lexvoco), a law firm focused on the success and wellbeing of lawyers. In 2016 Sarah won the ILANZ scholarship and wrote a paper, Valuing our lawyers: The untapped potential of flexible working in the legal profession, which was published by the New Zealand Law Society. Her paper can be found on the ILANZ website.

If you’d like to contribute to an article in this ongoing series or have a topic you’d like covered, please contact Sarah: sarah@lexvoco.com

Some useful resources:

If you’re worried about your or someone else’s mental health, reach out to someone you trust, your GP, local mental health provider, employee assistance programme or contact one of the organisations below:

Lifeline (0800 543 354 or free text HELP to 4357)

Need to Talk? (text or call 1737)

Suicide Crisis Helpline (0508 82 88 65)

Samaritans (0800 726 666)

If you or someone else are in immediate danger, call 111

Last updated on the 10th May 2019