Workplace flexibility issues impact more than parents. Here’s how 

The dominant voice when workplace flexibility issues are discussed are women who are parents. It stands to reason. Most workplaces struggle to accommodate pregnancy or parenting needs. And a lot of people discover this when they have children. However, exclusion from the workforce is not limited to parenting. Nor is it something that features as an issue after a career begins or even established.

A wheelchair symbol is on a sign. The symbol is above the words "step free route" with an arrow pointing right. It is in lumpy grass.
Photo by<br >Yomex Owo<br >yomex4life on Unsplash

For thousands of Australians, workplace flexibility issues create problems. The rigidity of start and finish times, a focus on presenteeism, and entrenched stigma make finding work tough. A failure to design policies, procedures, and physical environments to cater to real human beings makes it hard to be there.

So much so that a lot of talented people give up on traditional workplaces in favour of freelancing, contracting, or changing careers completely.

It’s not bad that people create their own work. It certainly gives the people who do it a lot of joy and freedom. But it does often beg the question- why should good workers be reinventing work for themselves as individuals when we know that it is our overall approach to the workplace that’s the problem?

Let’s have a look at how workplace flexibility issues impact a variety of workers in the community. And look at some of the alternative solutions  

Creating disability-friendly workplaces

One in five Australians have a disability and 80% of them are invisible. That invisibility doesn’t do anything to lessen the impact that disability can have on a person’s life. The problem with our world is that it is designed architecturally and psychologically from a position of health.

From inaccessible buildings through to assumptions about disability and the impact it may or may not have on a person’s ability to produce good work, it’s easy to see why many people with disabilities find it difficult to find work. 53.2% of Australians with disabilities are employed compared to 80% without a disability.

Disabilities don’t impact work as much as bosses seem to think. And a few well thought out changes can be used as a positive experience for all workers.

Catering to disability in the workplace often means a focus on workplace flexibility. And getting over the desire to see presenteeism in action. You can’t help a pain day, or the fact specialist doctors generally don’t take appointments outside of work hours. But you can manage it better when workplace flexibility is present.

Small changes can make a huge difference. These include:

  • Choosing workplaces that are accessible. That includes appropriate lifts, accessible toilets, and on streets that aren’t difficult to walk up or miles away from public transport
  • Planning with mobility in mind. Don’t cram the workplace. Ensure there is enough space between desks and furniture to move with or without mobility aids, that people with low or no vision don’t have to worry about trip hazards, it’s not cluttered etc
  • Leave the open plan workplace behind. As cute as these ideas were, they leave a lot to be desired when it comes to accessibility. Cutting down noise and sensory overload often associated with open plan workplaces helps non-neurotypical workers remain focused. It also aids in reducing stress on people managing pain, people with ADHD and introverts alike
  • Choose set desks over hotdesking. With hotdesking, workplaces often have formats that are not ergonomic and make providing disability supports such as readers, visual aids and the like far more costly. Or it makes the person with the disabilities stand out like a sore thumb when everyone else gets a hotdesking experience and they don’t
  • Include working from home opportunities and self-set start times. That way, when someone is having a particularly hard day when it comes to pain or disability management, a sick day doesn’t become the only option
  • Make time-in-lieu available. This can help with pain management, attending appointments and so on. It also gives a person the opportunity to use their time wisely and with autonomy. That in turn improves their connection with the workplace

An important point to consider is that if you change the policies and the physical environment to cater for disability, you also improve conditions for all workers. Parents benefit from the same time in lieu, self-set start times or work from home opportunities that people with disabilities do. Open plan workplaces often impact good work and solid focus through noise and distraction. Hot desking gives a temporary, disposable vibe. And it’s much easier to enjoy work when your environment doesn’t make you sweat or feel like the inside of a junk-filled warehouse.

Many of these changes focus on the physical environment. But there are other more intangible changes you can make to overcome workplace flexibility issues.

Including mental health into the mix

45% of Australians will have a major mental health crisis in their lifetime. We also see an average of 3000 suicides a year and over 65,000 Australians attempt suicide annually. These statistics should be enough to wake us up to the crisis we have on our hands in this country.

Now think about where we spend the majority of our time- at work.

Imagine the influence, both positive and negative, a mentally friendly workplace can have.

Mental health stigma is a massive problem when it comes to workplace flexibility issues. The old school perceptions of not being tough enough if you admit to weakness, entrenched shame about mental illness and a focus on stress as a badge of bravery create ripe conditions for toxic workplaces. And nobody benefits from these kinds of workplaces. Retention is low, bullying is high, company reputation and legal risks abound.

Again, it doesn’t mean turning your workplace into a psychologist’s practice or making massive changes to improve your ability to better cater to mental health in the workplace.

  • Create an open-door policy on mental health and stress. Giving workers the opportunity to flag they may be stressed before it comes a crisis can have a drastic impact on the severity of stress and mental illness as well as recovery times
  • Foster inclusion and have a zero tolerance to bullying. Hypercompetitive, exclusionary, and combative workplaces are hellish environments to work in and lead to stress, acquired mental health conditions, paranoia and toxic cultures
  • Spend time and energy on training your managers. Workers take their cues from the top of the chain. Strong, empathetic leadership makes all the difference. Sending managers to mental health first aid courses and similar courses are also inexpensive and invaluable
  • Include noise-free, stress-free zones. This helps workers relax during their breaks and take time out to think problems through
  • Be proactive about combatting overwork. Tired, overworked workers do not produce high quality work. Do what you can to offer manageable workloads
  • Counter language that sends the wrong message. Challenge language that makes fun of mental health issues, that applauds business bravery, or champions the incorrect message that to be a robot is a positive. Allow your workers to be human beings and enjoy the not having to solve petty fights or spend time sorting out workplace politics
  • Borrow from the disability-friendly policies. Offer time-in-lie, flexible working arrangements, work from home and self-set starting times to help your workers manage their stress and mental health conditions better

Reducing triggers for mental health and catering better for mental health related workplace flexibility issues also helps your other staff. By making the workplace more mentally friendly, you reduce stress. Lower stress often means higher productivity and better creative problem solving. In fact, Beyond Blue found that for every dollar invested in mental health in the workplace, $2.30 in savings was made.

You can lower sick days and reduce the risk of burn out in your workplace if you adopt a mentally healthy workplace framework.

Workplace flexibility issues should be a thing of the past

Let the lesson of COVID-19 show that people can and do work efficiently from home, without monitoring, and with verve and enthusiasm.

It’s something that freelancers, people with disabilities and people with mental health conditions have known for a long time.

Our reliance on being welded to a desk to prove productivity or pushing for uniformity with clocks does nothing to boost performance. It also reduces the potential talent pool of people available to you.

By building a culture that requires people to be sitting in the same room as you to be effective, you eliminate parents, people with disabilities, people with mental health conditions and a heck of a lot of self-starters who don’t need that sort of framework to be productive. You also make geography a deciding factor in the applicants you attract. Why would you rob your company the opportunity to hire the right person for the job by creating barriers that don’t matter?

Recognise that survival of the fittest isn’t about one archetype. Diversity in ecology and the workplace create a much better chance of surviving trying times. By introducing different perspectives and focussing on building a culture that not only represents but recognises the value of different perspectives, you can create a far more vibrant workplace culture.

And the quest for truly effective workplaces doesn’t begin and end with accommodating parents, disability or better mental health support, either. Racism, homophobia and other forms of exclusion also take their toll.

The story starts with dealing with your workplace flexibility issues. So, what are you waiting for? 



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