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A flexible friend

Pressure iStock 000010076139XSmall 146x219The team at LawCare examine the advantages of flexitime and how it can reduce workplace stress.

Around a quarter of UK workers in both the public and private sectors work “flexitime”. This generally means that although they have to work certain “core” hours (for example, 11am–3pm) they are free to vary their hours outside that time, provided a total is made up or a set amount of work is done. Flexitime is common in administrative roles and back offices, especially in local councils, and parents of children under 6 (and disabled children under 18) have the legal right to require their employer to offer them flexible working hours. Shift workers, managers and those who work in an environment open to the public during set hours are often exempt from the flexitime arrangement in their company.

There are various systems in place to record time worked in order that both the employer and employee can ensure that they have worked their salaries hours. Software packages are available, but many firms and companies still use handwritten timesheets, and some leave it to the employee to monitor their hours themselves. Most workplaces allow a credit or debit of about eight hours across a month before they require the employee to either take a day off (in the case of credit) or work unpaid overtime (in the case of debit) to restore the balance. This possibility of an extra day off each month is one of the things employees report enjoying most about the flexitime system.

For employees, flexitime can be tremendously beneficial. It means that they don’t need to stop work midway through a task because the office is closing, but can see it through to the end, and have a lie-in the next morning. They can avoid the rush-hour, attend school assemblies, and make better use of their free time – working longer on a Tuesday each week in order to attend a 4pm class at the gym on a Wednesday, for example.

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Flexitime also has many benefits to the employer. Most employers offering flexitime working report improvements in recruitment, absenteeism and productivity, greater staff morale, job satisfaction and retention. In addition, necessary medical and dental visits are in the employee’s time, and any delayed starts, for example due to traffic problems, are at the employee’s expense. It also suggests a level of professional trust on the part of management, to which employees generally respond positively.

Lorna Jack, CEO of the Law Society of Scotland, notes that prior to introducing flexitime their offices were open 9am-5pm and “We used to have to close for lunch.” Since they introduced flexitime they were able to open earlier and close later, giving greater convenience to their members and to the public, and with no extra cost to the Society. She adds, however, that “We do have to make sure that key areas always have cover.”

Neil Stevenson, Director of Representation for the Law Society of Scotland, notes that despite this risk, flexitime has worked extremely well within the Law Society’s workplace. “There will inevitably always the potential for people to abuse the system,” he says, “But likewise someone can sit playing Solitaire when they are at their desk, so the risk is not new, it just has a slightly different balance factors - in either case, good management is required to get the best out of any team.”

LawCare is particularly concerned with stress within the legal profession, and flexible working can be a tremendous advantage when it comes to avoiding this. For example, if there is a clash of personalities – or even outright bullying – within a department, employees can adjust their hours to minimise their exposure to the problem person. Working flexible hours also gives employees a measure of control over their day, and several studies have shown that feeling in control is a vital factor in reducing stress.[1]

So if flexitime is so wonderful for both employers and employees, why doesn’t every law firm, company and public sector organisation offer it? For Solicitors in private practice there is often the need for fee-earners to be available to clients at recognised hours, generally 9-5. Additionally many solicitors need to be working when the courts are in session. Banking, financial institutions and local government are the sectors most likely to offer flexitime, and lawyers working within the private sector in these industries are the most likely of any law professionals to be offered the opportunity to work flexible hours.

Another drawback of the system is that it is easily abused, and in a high-pressure environment (such as a law firm) employees may become suspicious that colleagues are abusing the system, or at least not pulling their weight. Certainly if the scheme is not monitored properly, or if time is recorded on paper or spread sheets by staff, it can be open to abuse. Regulating it accurately puts additional demands on HR departments or responsible supervisors/partners, and may seem to be more effort than the scheme is worth.

Flexitime may not be appropriate in your workplace, but LawCare would encourage all Partners, Managers and Employees to give it fair consideration. Giving staff more control over their working hours could reduce their stress (and stress can have serious consequences for both the individual and the firm) and greatly increase their job satisfaction, motivation and loyalty.

LawCare offers help and support to all lawyers, their staff and immediate families, through a 365-day-a-year, free and confidential helpline on 0800 279 6888 (9am – 7.30 pm weekdays and 10am–4pm at weekends/UK Bank Holidays). 

[1] In 1979 Robert Karasek found that workers whose jobs rated high in job demands yet low in employee control (as measured by latitude over decisions) reported significantly more exhaustion after work, depression, anxiety, and insomnia than other workers. When workers facing high demands had more control, their stress was lower. Similarly, in 1976 Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham reported that control (in terms of job-provided autonomy) enhanced motivation and growth and reduced stress.

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