Gudrun Limbrick examines why the unpopularity of a firmer structure in the workplace is outweighed by the benefits it can offer to the mental health of staff teams.

Recent years have seen significant developments in bringing more flexibility into the workplace. Moves such as shared parental leave, flexible employment contracts, opportunities for part-time working, increases in homeworking have all changed the way many people work. Additionally, there have also been, in some companies, less tangible changes in the workplace, such as looser structures, flatter heirarchies, greater involvement of staff in the way things are run and less formal divisions between staff teams and managers.

These increases in flexibility have all been important steps on the road to a better work life balance for many employees by increasing the time workers can spend on their non-work life. Greater flexibility in the workplace itself are also helping companies to listen more effectively to their staff and create better work environments and a more satisfied workforce. There have been enormous strides in flexibility in the last few decades — most workplaces are unrecognisable from those of the 1950s and many people have a greatly improved work life balance.

When flexibility is not all positive

While increased flexibility is an important business mantra at the moment, there are times when it can have a potentially negative impact on some employees. Too much flexibility can:

  1. … lead to uncertainty Too much flexibility can mean that, for some, the structure fades away. This can leave people wondering what it is that is expected of them and how they can achieve it. It can also lead them to be unclear about who is in charge and what decisions they are expected to make themselves.

  2. … encourage conflict Without clear boundaries between what is one person’s role and what is another’s there can be uncertainty about who is doing what. Similarly, if it is not clear who is leading a particular task, team or project, there can be conflict as more than one person attempts to take control or, conversely, chaos, as no one takes control.

  3. … negatively impact on confidence Strangely, a lack of clear direction does not always give people a sense of daring freedom, but can reduce confidence as it is not clear what they should be doing. If a person does not know what they should be doing, it is not clear what success will look like. It is thus very hard to judge whether an individual has done a good job or not which can mean that they do no get recognition from others and that they are never sure if they have done enough themselves.

  1. … reduce opportunities for an individual to shine A lack of direction can not only leave a person unsure of what the minimum is that is expected of them, it can mean that they are not sure what extras they can do. In some workplaces, it can be seen, that people are given minimal direction in the expectation that they will rise to the challenge of setting their own goals. This, however, does not suit everyone and some people will be uncertain about what is all right for them to do.

The challenges above can be problematic for anyone, but for someone with mental health problems, lacking a structure they have confidence in can simply add further to feelings of stress or depression. It can also be difficult to talk about these problems as it is not always popular to ask for greater structure or more clarification when others are enjoying the flexibility.

Common areas in which there can be too much flexibility

Detailed guidance

When a company introduces a measure such as homeworking, there needs to be detailed guidance about who is entitled to work from home and under what circumstances. There needs to be clarity about what is expected of people in terms of when they are to be at their desks and what they are expected to achieve each day, as well as who they should contact in case of any problems. The same is also true when measures such as flexibility in the hours worked are introduced. Without clear guidance, there can be confusion about what is allowed and mistrust as some people do one thing, while others are doing something else.

Job descriptions

As jobs develop and markets change, the tasks an individual does and their responsibilities can change significantly. Job descriptions may not necessarily keep up. A job description should be a useful checking document enabling a person to keep track of what is expected of them and alleviating any uncertainties about what their role is. All too often however, it is an historic record of what the job was when the individual applied for it which may have little in common with what actually goes on now.

Training

Keeping training up to date with the job being done can be very important to enabling an individual to feel that they are equipped to do the job as best as they can. Letting training and development slide is very easy in times of change or when actual roles have changed beyond what they were originally.

Supervision and assessment

Few people enjoy being supervised or assessed but, perversely, the loss of regular, effective supervision can leave individuals feeling as if they are not sure whether they are doing the right thing at work or if they are doing their job well enough. A less formal relationship between employees and managers may help to create flexibility but supervision and assessment should not be lost too.

Delineation between roles

More fluid teams are being created where roles are less fixed and so tasks are allocated on the basis of ability or interest or availability at the time. With grey areas between what is one person’s role and another, conflict and uncertainty can take root. And it may be particularly hard for someone with mental health issues to feel confident in such a scenario.

Policies and procedures

Any company needs to have its policies and procedures clearly set out and accessible for any member of staff who wants to see them. It can be very difficult for a person to know what is, or is not, acceptable behaviour from a colleague, for example, if policies are incomplete or unclear. Similarly, policies need to be very clear about what help and support might be available to an individual and what they need to do to access it. It may feel unpopular to have too many policies and procedures, but they are of great importance in helping to give employees feelings of confidence and security.

Flexibility has obvious benefits for employees and also for employers. However, increased flexibility is all too often accompanied by a crumbling of structure and a decrease of clarity. This can be very unhelpful for many people, whatever their mental health. For people with mental health issues, however, it can present particular challenges which could potentially impact negatively on their mental health.

Flexibility needs to be accompanied by good direction which make it very clear what is expected of everyone, what the management structure is, and what policies and procedures are in place should they be needed.

Last reviewed 16 January 2019