Flexible working – does it lower our stress levels?

Professor Tarani Chandola

Flexible working is becoming more common, and it’s said to be better for us and our work-life balance. So: is it?

The idea of flexible working is that it gives us more control – employees choose (at least to some extent) how many hours they work, which days of the week and whether they’re doing those hours in the office or at home. That makes it easier for us to balance work and family responsibilities and, in theory, reduce our stress levels.

With my co-authors, I wanted to look at the evidence from longitudinal data and see if this was true. Specifically, I wanted to ask four questions:

  • Who gets to work flexibly? Do people in more routine jobs, for example, have less chance than those in professional occupations?
  • Is flexible working associated with lower stress? Do people who work flexibly have lower chronic stress levels than those who don’t or can’t?
  • Do people who have a combination of family and work stress have higher levels of ‘allostatic load’ (wear and tear on the body due to chronic stress)?
  • If someone does work long hours and look after children, is their allostatic load lower if they work flexibly?

Biomarkers

We can examine these questions because in Waves 2-3 of Understanding Society, several thousand participants agreed to take part in a health assessment interview with a nurse and to give a blood sample. These samples mean that researchers can now look at biomarkers, or signs of health, such as cholesterol levels and blood pressure, alongside social and economic data.

So, we were able to look at people’s work and family responsibilities, but instead of simply asking them about their stress levels – and getting a subjective answer – we had a way of measuring them objectively.

The Understanding Society data also told about the type of business and the sector people worked in, and their health and behaviour – so we were able to take these factors into account. Were they active, for example, did they have a longstanding illness or disability, and did they smoke?

What we found

Overall, we found that men and women who worked flexible hours had lower levels of allostatic load. So, reduced hours flexible working (which includes choosing to work part-time) may indeed be good for employees’ levels of chronic stress.

We also found that more women than men took up the opportunity to work flexibly where it was available, which didn’t surprise us. (It’s still more common for women to combine work and family roles.)

Looking at those four research questions, we saw that:

  • Reduced hours flexible work was more common among socio-economically disadvantaged groups. Other forms of flexible working, such as flextime, flexplace and informal arrangements, were more common among more privileged social classes (which was in line with our hypothesis).
  • Workers in the UK who use reduced hours flexible arrangements had lower allostatic load than their peers who didn’t work flexibly, or didn’t have the option. We took many other factors into account – such as partnership and health status, ethnicity and socio-economic factors – as well as health behaviours like smoking and physical activity. Even when we considered these factors, though, the results hardly changed, suggesting a direct link between inflexible working hours and stress.
  • Longer working hours (more than 37 hours a week) were associated with higher levels of allostatic load among women with greater childcare responsibilities.
  • Reduced hours flexible working does appear to reduce the allostatic load of people who work long hours and look after children.

We published our findings in Sociology in February.

What we know now

This isn’t the final word on the matter. We only collected the biomarker data once, so we couldn’t look at changes in allostatic load over time. We can’t be sure that flexible working, or stress from work and family, caused the allostatic load – other factors might have been involved.

It may also be that people chose flexible working because their stress levels were high – or perhaps their levels were relatively low and they wanted to keep them that way. People with childcare responsibilities who didn’t have the option to work flexibly might also have chosen not to work, which will affect the results, too.

We can see clearly, though, that flexible working – especially when it involves reduced hours – can help people who balance work and family roles to reduce their chronic stress levels.

We also know that biological data can help in social science research by showing us links between the societies we live and work in and our wellbeing.

Author

Professor Tarani Chandola

Tarani Chandola is Professor of Medical Sociology at the University of Manchester