Manisha Chavan, 31, a Mumbai-based PR professional, gave birth during the pandemic and had been working from home until recently. “My workplace issued a mandate two months ago to resume work-from-office,” she recalls and also goes on to confess that ever since then, “life has been chaotic.” Chavan hasn’t been able to find time to focus on herself as she has been busy juggling housework, family duties and office work. “I feel I will burn out soon,” she regretfully says.
A lot of us adults spend a major chunk of our waking hours at work. Mental health and work go hand in hand. Work has the potential to cause and also exacerbate mental health concerns. On the other hand, it can also be a source of satisfaction and act as a source of support for many of us. Workplace flexibility does play quite a pertinent role towards supporting mental health both in personal as well as professional sectors in one’s life. Workplace flexibility includes concepts such as remote work, flexible working hours, and at times reduced workload and schedules and it can have a positive impact on one’s quality of life.
Dr Ketoki Mazumdar, a Mumbai-based consultant psychotherapist points out that covid-19 had introduced professionals to the concept of flexible working as organisations were forced to let them work from home. “Many women and mothers have reported that working from home has been an overall productive experience for their mental wellness, especially being able to spend more time with their children,” she says.
Supriya Jadhav, 35, a Pune-based finance analyst must agree; she says that working from home made her feel productive and more energetic. “Working from the office resumed recently for me but I must say, it just threw me off. Working from home allowed me to juggle more responsibilities, and focus better on all aspects of my life," she believes.
A May 2022 report published on LinkedIn reveals that Indian women have been facing a lot of issues ever since offices reopened and workplace flexibility has reduced. Data shows that 83% of women want more flexibility and 34% say that it improves their mental health. The LinkedIn study suggested that around 83 per cent of women realised that they want more flexibility, and around 70 per cent have quit or are considering quitting their professions because they are not offered work flexibility. Adding to that, around 72 % of working women have been saying no to roles that do not offer work flexibility. These women have had to face penalties as a result of these concerns and they have been reluctant to voice their needs as a result of this fear of being excluded.
Parul Dhingra, an organisational psychologist with Antarmanh Consulting, an outfit providing mental wellness solutions to businesses says that flexibility is one of the important ingredients of retention. In her opinion, the advantages of flexibility can be cherished by all, regardless of their gender. “Transitioning from the early era, in the workspace, as responsibilities take acceleration, flexibility is far more than just an incentive, it has become the need of the hour,” she says. Debasmita Sinha, Clinical Director, Manah Wellness, which offers personalised solutions for employees’ emotional wellness, says that in most major cities, professionals commute between 10-15 hours every week, and women realised the value of this time when they were able to work remotely or in hybrid mode.
Mazumdar adds that when employees have more time to tend to their personal lives, they are better able to foster holistic wellness in their overall lives. “Striving to strike a work-life balance and commute-related stress are two of the top factors that make most women want a profession which offers flexibility,” she reveals. She adds that there's also evidence that reducing commute times means working from home helps to increase productivity because you have more time in your day and less fatigue.
Reports from the LinkedIn survey show the benefits of flexible working indicated by two in five women on their overall improvement in work-life balance and in helping them progress in their careers, while one in three women reported an improvement in their mental health and likelihood of continuing in their current professions due to this flexibility. “With the opportunity of workplace flexibility over the past two years, the benefits of it might offer some insights into what healthier work/life structures might look like in the future,” Mazumdar says.
The challenges of on-site working
Sinha mentions that commuting and the daily grind can eat into time otherwise spent on self-care, rest, or family time. “From a physiological perspective, this brings a drop in one’s endorphins and dopamine levels. This can leave women feeling drained of energy or guilty for not being able to stick to a healthier lifestyle,” she elaborates. She also adds, “Women can also feel deprived of choice and autonomy when they are summarily called back without being consulted by their employers. They may face tremendous pressure to present themselves on a par with their male colleagues even as they struggle with the dual responsibility of work and home – something they often cannot discuss openly at work," she adds.
Dhingra believes that women now have to ensure that they are adhering to the time restrictions in addition to getting their children prepared for school. “As there is calm before the storm, similarly, the pandemic allowed women to resolve all these challenges. However, these challenges are adding on as stressors and impacting their mental health. Physical wellbeing, sleep, nutritional needs, and peace are being compromised while commuting to work as well,” she infers.
Mazumdar throws light on the term ‘flexidus’ a new term that came up as a result of Covid-19, “referring to the current exodus of women professionals from the workforce due to a lack of flexible policies.” According to her, this rather jarring experience has led women to be hesitant to ask for increased flexibility at their workplace, compounded by fears of exclusion, being held back from promotions, working overtime, agreeing to take pay cuts and receiving unfair treatment by their bosses. “Taking away the agency and autonomy of flexible working hours from women and mothers, who are multitasking on several levels, is a serious concern that organisations have to take into account. It is important for employers to consider flexible work options as an essential part of helping employees thrive under the current circumstances and beyond, as there’s a clear consensus that flexible work time equates to improved mental health, and that’s good news for both the employers and the employees,” she says.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based therapist