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Does work flexibility make us happier?

More and more Aussies are moving to flexible working arrangements, freelance and contract work. How does this impact our health?

Health Agenda magazine
October 2017

The wide appeal of flexible hours, a shorter commute and greater independence means more and more employees are breaking free from full-time, office-based work. There are just over 2 million self-employed people in Australia, with many working back-to-back, short-term contracts.

And while 3.5 million people employed by a company regularly work from home, only 13% do so because of a flexible work arrangement.

Australians are so keen to see their office 9-to-5 routine change that 50% of employees say they’d be willing to take a pay cut to get it, according to a McCrindle Research survey.

Taking charge of your workday

So why are more of us willing to sacrifice our salary or a dependable regular income for this flexibility? Psychologist Sue Langley, an expert in positive psychology in the workplace, says the answer is in the many health benefits.

“Research has shown that people who run their own business, or work short contracts, work harder yet experience less stress.”

Langley believes this is due to having more autonomy and a greater sense of meaning in their role.

It’s something freelance financial planner Katie Pecotich identifies with. Much of her current professional contentment comes from the control she has over her schedule.

“For me, freelancing means that I can vary my days with client appointments, admin, research and creating social media content, plus add in some exercise or ‘me time’,” Pecotich says. “I like the variety.”

This job satisfaction is also experienced by those who still have a boss, but have the freedom to work from home. A small 2016 US study by research company TINYpulse showed that remote workers are happier, more productive and feel valued. Another 2016 study, by the American Sociological Association, saw similar results over 12 months in a workplace flexibility program run by a Fortune 500 company.

Similarly, working short-term contracts often allows people to accept work when it suits them so they can schedule holidays and commitments in between contracts.

“This equal balance between career and personal life has a positive impact on health and wellbeing,” says social researcher Claire Madden.

Connecting with others

As great as the benefits are, there are downsides to this new way of working – most stem from working alone, having an irregular salary and, in terms of contract work, not feeling completely part of a team.

Entrepreneur and business coach Jane Copeland, who’s been running a digital marketing business from home for 7 years, says it’s important to know upfront how lonely it can be.

“Working from home brings isolation. We can connect with people online but still there’s not a lot of human interaction – that's a big downside.”

To feel part of a team, Copeland suggests starting a group to connect with like-minded people. Pecotich recommends booking a desk at a co-working space. If Pecotich has a meeting with a business partner, she might also work in their office for the day.

For Tim Peterson, who works on short-term tech projects at different businesses, slotting into an office culture is challenging. “I’m only there for a short time, so it’s hard to really connect with others; I’m not in on all the office jokes or politics,” he explains. “But I try to be as friendly as possible, and also schedule lunchtime runs or after-work drinks with mates who work nearby, so I don’t feel so isolated.”

Watch out for binge working

Freelancing, working from home and contract work can all manifest in intense busy periods followed by quiet times that, apart from anything else, can be stressful if you’re not sure where your next pay cheque is coming from.

It’s a common cycle, says Copeland. “Think about it as a sprint where you're working hard for a certain period of time. You put all your energy into it, but then you do really need to recharge.”

Nutritionist and psychologist Jayta Szpitalak agrees. “Binging on work, like binging on food, can be highly stressful for your body and mind. The need for regular exercise and healthy food is highly important for your body to re-energise, and taking time out for your mind to relax will allow you to concentrate better.”

Master the contractor work/life balance:

  • Schedule mini-holidays throughout the year and try to not reschedule or cancel them.
  • If you work from home, create your own workday structure and stick to it. If you’re a contract worker, create a routine and rituals for your day – coffee breaks at a certain time and scheduled lunchtime exercise for example, so that wherever you are it feels familiar.
  • Factor in regular exercise; add it to your diary as you would any other meeting.
  • Connect with others who are in the same boat as you – join an entrepreneur group, or a networking event within your industry, for example.

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