Katrina Gaffney, External Affairs Officer, Money and Mental Health

Flexible working: what happens after 19 July?

12 July 2021

Having more time to spend with family, being able to exercise during the day and not having to jostle with 30 other people for the one office microwave at lunch – there are lots of reasons why people might enjoy working from home. And for many people with mental health problems the flexibility to work from home can make a huge difference in helping them to stay in work while managing mental health problems. 

The pandemic forced millions of people out of the office, but in doing so highlighted some exciting possibilities around flexible working. It wasn’t just flexibility around where we work but also when – with the constraints of the office nine to five removed, many people were able to work more flexible hours. These new levels of flexibility will have also opened up new employment possibilities for people with mental health problems. 

But, with millions of people with mental health problems already fearful about returning to normal working arrangements after lockdown and the guidance on home-working set to change on 19 July, many will be thinking about what this means for their working patterns and future opportunities.

Why is flexibility important for people with mental health problems?

People with mental health problems often need flexibility within employment to help them manage fluctuations in their mental health. What this looks like can vary from person to person:

“Allowing me to work at home and start later if I needed to was helpful as sometimes my medication made me feel groggy in the morning.” Expert by experience

“I was off with anxiety for four weeks… When I returned I asked to reduce my working hours and asked for an unusual working pattern of three weeks working and one week off. My employer agreed and I have been doing this for about two years and it has greatly helped.” Expert by experience 

As the symptoms of mental health problems vary, so too will the working requirement of different individuals. However, it is clear that offering greater levels of flexibility allows people with mental health problems to work in a way which suits their needs. Flexible working is vitally important in helping people with mental health problems enter and stay in employment – but it is also beneficial for employers looking to attract a productive and diverse workforce.

What about people who can’t work from home?

We also know that there are millions of people working in sectors – from healthcare to hospitality – who can’t work from home, but who would still benefit from flexible working. Employers can still offer flexibility even when the option to work from home is off the cards. What this flexibility looks like may differ depending on the workplace, but it’s important for employers to think creatively. Flexibility could include: 

  • Offering later start times or afternoon shifts
  • Giving employees the option to break up the working day into smaller chunks with breaks in between, as opposed to one extended lunch break
  • Condensing working hours in the working week to four days instead of five. 

In the wake of the pandemic, it’s important that the benefits of flexible working aren’t just extended to those working in offices but the whole workforce. 

What government and employers should do next

Flexibility isn’t just about home-working, it’s about giving employees the choice to work in a way which is beneficial for their wellbeing. For some people this will mean working in the office, for some it will mean working from home and for some it will be about the ability to work alternative hours. 

In the past month, there have been conflicting media reports on whether the government will introduce a default right to flexible working after the pandemic ends. We’re calling on the government to make this right available to all workers, as it would help more people with poor mental health to continue to work, and would increase income security. 

Going forward it’s important for employers to be creative in what they can offer employees who need more flexibility. It will also be important for employers to be open about the possibility of flexible working from the beginning. Making clear in job ads that you offer flexible working will make job hunting easier for people with mental health problems and ultimately attract a more diverse workforce.

After 19 July it’s important that we don’t step backwards on flexible working. Employers should be thinking about how they can maintain and extend flexible working, this will benefit employees and make the employment market a fairer place for people with mental health problems.