As another difficult year draws to a close, it is only sensible to start looking towards 2022 and thinking of the potential opportunities and challenges that may face employers and employees alike. One of these challenges will likely be the issue of flexible working.
Flexible working describes a type of working arrangement which gives employees a degree of flexibility on how long, where and at what times they work. Flexible working can include home-working, reduced or part-time working, compressed hours etc. By law, an employee is entitled to bring a written request for flexible working if they have worked for the employer for at least 26 weeks and have not made any other flexible working requests within the past 12 months. It is no longer a right reserved to parents looking after children. Employers can only reject flexible working requests for certain reasons such as that the request is too expensive for the organisation, it will be detrimental on the ability to meet customer demand and it will be detrimental impact on quality or output etc.
The issue of flexible working has been prevalent throughout the pandemic. Pre-covid, only 5% of the workforce worked from home whereas in April 2020, 46.6% of people carried out some of their work at home. Much of the home working has stemmed from the necessity for employees to balance work with other responsibilities such as home schooling, childcare and supporting vulnerable relatives through the pandemic as well government guidance.
In the short term, organisations are likely to find in the coming months that employees are wanting a certain contractual hybrid of home working and office working, especially with the uncertainty of the Omicron variant. During this time, organisations will need to ensure that there is consistency with the way that all employees are treated in terms of communication and engagement.
Organisations also need to be aware of potential opportunities which could arise out of flexible working, especially in light of the uncertainty of the pandemic:
- Balancing caring responsibilities with work (to ensure that employees who may otherwise need to take an extended period of leave or give up work do not need to do so). Allowing flexibility to ensure that employees can adapt to changes in their non-work responsibilities may increase job retention and keep highly skilled and desired employees in work;
- Flexibility allows organisations to balance their employees in line with less busy periods where presence may not be required within the office or at certain times of the day. By allowing employees to work from home where needed, it may allow organisations to save costs if required;
- Flexible working and ensuring that the organisation has the technology and infrastructure for supporting staff to work from home will help organisations to prepare for any emergency which may come along in the future (e.g. stricter government guidance);
- Some employees report that they are far more motivated when working at home (30.3% worked more hours than usual at home) whereas some employees are less motivated at home (34.4% found they work fewer hours than usual). By allowing flexible working, organisations are likely to see that employees will choose to work where they feel most comfortable and productive; subsequently this will benefit the organisation longer term with productivity increased by higher levels of morale and less attrition; and
- Where an organisation promotes flexible working or where flexible working works well, this suggests that there is a culture of trust, that performance is based on outcomes rather than presence, effective communication and supportive management.
The future for flexible working in the Covid pandemic is uncertain. Whilst many employees will have their own personal reasons for making flexible working requests, the impact of Covid on the future of flexible working remains uncertain and this is something that employers will need to get to grips with.
The rise of bullying
During the last two years, forms of workplace bullying have taken a back seat. With many people working from home the opportunities for workplace bullying have been limited; face-to-face contact has been largely halted due to stay-at-home and work-from-home requirements. However, for those managing at a distance, email, Social Media and virtual meetings have become the normal way of communicating with clients and colleagues. According to a Writer survey, 38% of employees said they have experienced ‘toxic workplace communication’ during the pandemic.
Bullying is defined by Acas as unwanted behaviour from a person or group that has the effect of making an employee feel frightened, upset, less respected than others or that they are being made fun of. Examples include rumour spreading, being blocked from attending social or networking events, being talked down to, being given heavier workloads than others etc. There is nothing within the definition which limits where the bullying can take place and as such the rise of virtual bullying has increased; many of those who had experienced bullying within the workplace prior to Covid have experienced that bullying has moved online. This has been influenced and driven by the pressures caused by Covid.
Covid-19 has created unprecedented pressure for many employees; the pressure of having to cover the work for those too unwell to attend the office or for those isolating, the pressure of the pandemic as a whole and the uncertainty of the future, loneliness and isolation for many people as well as the divide created over vaccination status and exemptions to the guidance; all of which will only increase the risk of bullying in the workplace in the coming year and potentially even further when booster vaccines become more widely available and further guidance is implemented.
Now that there is a system of hybrid working among many organisations, employers need to be alive to the risk of both face-to-face and online bullying and how to spot signs of bullying at an early stage. These can include rejecting invitations to socialise, asking to work from home, taking regular sick leave, producing a lower quality of work, seeming distracted and anxious at work etc. If an employee is showing these signs, it may be prudent to have a private and confidential conversation with them to understand what is happening; it may be non-work related but tackling any issues will help to prevent concerns from growing.
It is important that employers mitigate the risk of bullying in the first instance. Methods of doing so include:
- Developing a culture of respect and tolerance;
- Creating a zero tolerance for any inappropriate behaviour and demonstrating this;
- Anti-bullying and harassment policies;
- Drawing attention to any policies so employees know that they are available, how to access them and how to follow the advice contained therein;
- Emailing policies and information to employees when there are going to be staff events (off-site events with alcohol are likely to exasperate any pre-existing harassment/bullying issues);
- Providing equality and diversity training;
- Placing emphasis on disciplinary and grievance procedures;
- Whistle-blowing policies;
- Offering advice and counselling for those who have witnessed inappropriate behaviour or been the victim of it
- Conducting regular work and welfare reviews with staff to check how they think they are doing and what if any external and internal pressures or issues they are facing; and
- Promoting the role of appropriate behaviour online and creating and/or drawing employees to where policies are kept regarding the use of any company or personal computers, phones etc.
Stress in the workplace
The Covid-19 pandemic has had a major impact on our lives. Many of us have faced or are facing challenges that can be stressful and that may have an impact on our mental health, whether that be spending time isolating away from family and friends, worrying about elderly relatives or job security.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that 21% of adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021, more than double than before the pandemic. The Covid pandemic has caused stress in so many aspects of life including:
- Stress of illness and generating a fear of the effects that Covid may have on us as individuals but also on close family and friends;
- Ongoing uncertainty of restrictions and the threat of further lockdowns which in turn create a fear of further periods of isolation and loneliness;
- Uncertainty surrounding non-work responsibilities, such as childcare and home schooling and how time off or flexible working can be afforded to cater for this;
- Workplace stress as individuals are unable to work which burdens their colleagues with an increased and potentially unmanageable workload which in turn may cause a chain of stress related illness;
- Concerns of income, job security and redundancy;
- Overtiredness due to a change in routine when working at home
Unfortunately it is not just Covid that places stress on many of our lives. In a survey undertaken by Trade Union Congress, 70% of health and safety representatives identify stress as one of the top hazards in the workplace. Every year more than 400,000 people suffer from stress-related illnesses linked to work.
It is an employer’s role to ensure the health and safety for all of their employees. Employers are under an obligation to investigate and address any reports of stress or ill-health. The following are ways in which the employer may be able to prevent or assist with workplace stress and mental health concerns:
- Identifying the signs of stress and mental health concerns (employees not taking breaks, increased sickness or lateness, mood changes, anger and aggression, performance issues, anti-social behaviour etc.)
- Early intervention by talking to the employee involved and raising concerns without being judgmental and avoiding critique. Early intervention will show employees that the employer cares and that they are alive to any concerns;
- Being aware that poor mental health may be defined as a disability and understanding the responsibilities this places on an employer and making adjustments where necessary and feasible;
- Checking in on employees to makesure they are well and providing a safe space for employees to feedback any concerns. Ensuring this is carried out on a regular basis will not only help to identify any issues, it may help to limit the onset of any concerns;
- Working at home can be isolating and very lonely. As from the 13 December 2021 a further work from home order has been announced by the Government. Keeping in touch with colleagues, organising group virtual meetings and routine telephone calls may assist in preventing loneliness; and
- Allowing employees the opportunity to work in the office if it is appropriate and safe providing that government guidance is strictly followed.
In many cases, employers focus on the role of the individual rather than the cause of the stress itself. By assisting in removing the cause of the stress (e.g. employing more support staff to prevent overworking, better and more frequent training and promoting a good work-life balance). Employees should also be encouraged to raise any concerns with both their manager and trade union safety rep about possible problems and sources of stress. Trade union representatives are urged to encourage their employers to tackle stress and work with them in developing policies and procedures to tackle stress, and engage and communicate with their members. The key thing is to prevent stress in the workplace as a first step and then to quickly and appropriately identify and resolve the concerns as quickly as possible; particularly in today’s current situation with the ongoing pandemic.