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Your body, your rules: 5 reasons why flexible working is good for wellbeing

For the next two weeks the Juggle blog will be focusing on wellbeing, at home
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For the next two weeks, the Juggle blog will be focusing on wellbeing, at home, at work and every space in between. We’ll be asking for your experiences and opinions through social media, including via our regular Wednesday Poll and Friday Pub Quiz question.

Let’s get something out of the way before we start: flexible working means having the autonomy to choose your schedule and working environment, to concentrate on achieving goals in your own way. It does not mean “grazing” work by checking your emails and being contactable essentially 24/7, having to sit alone all day at home or shunting work to the evenings and weekends when you should be relaxing. This definition is important because all that stuff can make you ill. Never switching off is not the path to better wellbeing, but never switching off is also categorically not flexible working.
Actual flexible working is great for your wellbeing. Here are 5 reasons why (with some advice on how to make the most of them)… and one reason why all those health benefits shouldn’t just be nice-to-haves, and could make you a better professional as well.

1. You can go to the bank

Or the doctors. Or the dentist. Or to grab your kids from school. We’re not talking about sacking off work whenever you feel like it, we’re talking about having the flexibility to get your life admin and your work done within the same period. If you can set your own schedule you can mould it around the non-work tasks that you really need to do. Allowing these tasks pile up, rushing to squeeze them in at the margins or ignoring them altogether leads to stress, anxiety and possible risks to your health.
It seems crazy to us that in 2018 employees still have no entitlement to time off to visit medical professionals, but with truly flexible working you don’t need “time off” – you simply fold whatever you need to do into your schedule. Stable scheduling increases productivity, and flexible working often leads to more stability rather than less, because work can be scheduled around repeated and unavoidable non-work tasks (like childcare) in a way that’s consistent and efficient.
Caveat: If your non-work task will be genuinely disruptive to your productivity – even if it’s only a one-time thing – then you should speak with your employer and colleagues to minimise that disruption. Autonomy over schedule doesn’t give you license to leave others in the dark.   

2. You get more exercise

There are hundreds of articles telling you that your “I-don’t-have-time-to-go-to-the-gym” argument is a big fat lie. There’s plenty of time to get some exercise done! But… what if you don’t want to get up an extra 20 minutes early in the morning, or do calf raises while the kettle is boiling, or powerwalk on your lunch break instead of relaxing? What if you would just like to go to that class you enjoy at the same time every week? A couple of Juggle staff members find that they slump around teatime and go to the gym for an hour instead. Then, instead of leaving around their usual time and going to the gym on the way home (when it’s packed), they stick around to finish up. They get home at the same time, they’ve done the same amount of work, AND they’ve exercised. All in a day’s work. They just do it to a schedule that makes sense for them.

The truth is – especially if you live in a city and ESPECIALLY if you want exercise to be something you enjoy instead of something you have to suffer through – exercise is hard to fit in to the 9-5. Not having to fit the 9-5 yourself is all you need to solve this issue.

3. You get more sleep

Your chronotype dictates whether you’re an early bird or a night owl. It’s the daily manifestation of your own personal circadian rhythm, and ignoring it can lead to tiredness, irritability, lowered productivity or even sleep disorders. We’ve known about this for a long time, just as we’ve known that we don’t get enough sleep as a society (and it’s worryingly bad for us). But a rigid work schedule doesn’t care about any of this. You show up at 9 and you leave at 5. Tired all morning? Tough. Sleepy all afternoon? Tough. The most important thing is that you’re there. Seems crazy to us. We’d rather have people be rested and productive. Early bird? Get in as soon as you can make it. Night owl? Sleep in and come late. If everyone did this, we wouldn’t have a rush hour and everyone would get their journey done quicker. If you’ve got a personal rhythm then flexible working gives you a variety of tools to move in better sync with it.
Caveat: we’re sure we don’t need to tell you this, but not everyone moves to your beat. Have respect for everyone’s patterns and schedule, and collaborate at a time that’s reasonable for the collective. You know that guy that everyone hates, who always schedules meetings for 8:30am? Don’t be that guy.   

4. You get more time to think (or not think)

Your mental health is precious. It’s probably the most precious resource you have, and as a society we’re only just beginning to find out how valuable – and how easy to lose – it is. Are you taking enough time to work on your mental wellbeing? For most of us the answer is no. Flexible working gives you more time to think about mental health, and real flexible working, which values productivity and results above all else, sees mental health as precious too. (If you have a mental health issue you are less productive; a results-driven business should focus on regaining that equilibrium and taking steps to make sure it’s always maintained.)
All three of the previous benefits of flex we’ve listed should help A LOT with your mental health, as will using flexible working to avoid or adapt to situations you find uniquely stressful – our Content Coordinator pursued flexible work primarily because he found commuting and the rush hour damaging to his mental health, and he’s not alone. Having time away from the office to concentrate on a particularly knotty problem or work on business development can also be a huge help with your overall stress levels (getting work done instead of being constantly distracted is one of the best reasons for not always working in the office). Being able to take 30 mins to to really think, to meditate or to just walk around outside is some of the best preventative medicine you can take for your mental health.
Caveat: if your job stresses you out, it’s tempting to see it as a net negative for your mental state. But in the main, work is generally good for mental health. The charity Mind says work can provide “a sense of identity, contact and friendship with others, a steady routine and structure, and opportunities to gain achievements and contribute.” Keep these positives in mind when you construct a flexible working lifestyle, and try to maximise them as you minimise stressors.

5. You might eat better (and less)

If you’re working from home you’ve got your whole kitchen and fridge available to you. Cooking a meal is almost always going to be healthier than eating something processed from a shop (plus, cooking is therapeutic). Office jobs especially seem to be havens for high-calorie, low-nutrition food. You don’t sit and munch biscuits at home but you do at work because they’re there. Changing your environment puts you back in control.
But even if you still spend most of your time out of the house – either in the office or on the move – flexible work can be beneficial to your eating habits. Plan your schedule so you can eat with your family or friends in the morning or evening (or both if you can). Take your lunch break at the time that makes most sense to you.
Caveat: flexible working might give you more time in your day to make a packed lunch (never underestimate the time you’ll save by not travelling during the rush hour) but it’s not going to change your eating habits for you. But people that are less stressed and more rested tend to eat healthier. So greater autonomy at work might have a secondary effect on your diet.

Why actively pursuing all these will make you a better professional

Well, for one you’ll be healthier, fitter, better rested and less stressed, which will make you more effective by default. But there’s another important reason why you should actively engage with the points we’ve made above.
Flexible working is intuitive, efficient and sensible. That doesn’t always mean that it’s easy. Self-management comes with freedom and power, and as a wise man once said, with great power must come great responsibility. You’re in charge of your schedule, your goals and how you meet them. And that freedom can occasionally be both overwhelming and confusing – especially if you’ve spent half a lifetime doing exactly the same thing, day after day.
Anchoring your schedule with regular positives like exercise. Monitoring your mental wellbeing and stepping in before anxieties become problems. Refusing to “graze” your work emails and prioritising time to switch off and relax. Getting more sleep – without sleeping in. Staying on top of your chores and out-of-work responsibilities so that work-life balance just becomes a whole, integrated life. All of these require discipline, time-management and self-awareness. If you can master these skills you’ll be a better self-managed professional, a more attractive hire for any company and better prepared for the next step in your career, whenever you decide to make it.
Flexible working can promote a healthy cycle. More time and autonomy to manage your wellbeing makes you a more efficient, productive professional, and being a more efficient, productive professional earns you more time and autonomy to manage your wellbeing. It’s not always going to be easy, but we think it’s about the best you could ask for from the world of work. 

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Romanie Thomas

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