The demands of a 24-hour society, the strain felt by millions in a challenging economic climate, the struggle to cope with long commutes between the central city offices and out-of-town, affordable housing are taking their toll on workforces around the globe.
As the demands placed upon employees grow, many modern businesses devote time and effort to improving the environment their staff are working in. And according to the latest health research, it's worth every cent to the firms that put their employees' well-being high in their priorities.
A new study, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour, shows that by providing a more flexible approach to work, companies are rewarded by having a more efficient and healthier staff.
In a long-term assessment of more than 600 employees by a team of researchers from the University of Minnesota, workers participating in flexible work initiatives were found to sleep better, have fewer family rows, better energy levels and less stress. "Our study shows that moving from viewing time at the office as a sign of productivity, to emphasising actual results can create a work environment that fosters healthy behaviour and well-being," explained Professor Phyllis Moen, sociologist and study co-author. "Creating broad access to time flexibility encourages employees to take better care of themselves."
The research underlines the benefits of the kinds of policies adopted by successful companies with branches here in the UAE, such as Microsoft and Bayt.com. "Traditional notions of 'work is done if I can see you' still predominate - but some firms are rethinking how to create policies and programmes that begin to address these needs," explains Dr Michael Burchell, director at the Great Place to Work Institute UAE.
Burchell's team have just announced the Top 10 places to work in the UAE. "While not every company on the list has flexible working arrangements, most firms that win such awards are employee-centric and commit to practices that address the real needs of employees - including flexible working arrangements," Burchell said.
"Flexible working arrangements and attention to the physical work environment is still a tremendous opportunity for firms in the UAE," Burchell adds, citing companies that are already focusing on the values of flexible working. "There's Microsoft's 'Work-Life Balance Charter' signed in each department, or the open space arrangement at Bayt.com."
But making your workplace the kind of environment that's conducive to productive, enjoyable work - one that could catch the eye of those judging such 'great workplace' surveys - requires a lot more than simply allowing staff to come and go as they please.
"It's really about fairness," explains Ronald Riggio, a professor of leadership and organisational psychology at the Kravis Leadership Institute at Claremont McKenna College in the US. "If your job does not require that you be there at such-and-such a time, and if the employee has legitimate needs for a flexible schedule, then the company should allow flexibility if it doesn't affect performance and meeting goals."
In his work, looking at how companies can strike the balance between profits, efficiency and worker's welfare, Riggio has found that issues such as flexible working need to be handled tactfully. "Being straight with employees about such things goes a long way to building critical trust," he says. "This is particularly important in companies where some folks have flexibility, and others don't by virtue of the need for them to be on-site. If management explains the reasons, then there is less likely to be a sense of inequity and dissatisfaction."
Beyond flexible working hours, other characteristics that make a workplace truly great include making sure employees feel that they have a voice that's heard. "When Fortune magazine does their rankings, it's based one-third on actual 'employee-friendly' company practices, like concern for diversity, and two-thirds on employee satisfaction, which includes sense of camaraderie, job satisfaction and of course a sense of purpose," says Riggio.
That "sense of purpose" is about looking broadly at what makes employees feel engaged and satisfied with their jobs and companies. "This would include a sense that the company recognises their efforts, they feel respected and empowered to make decisions regarding their own work," says Riggio, who also believes that employees need to feel that the company they work for is one in which they are able to succeed. "There has to be a chance for promotion and recognition," he says. "It also involves good benefits, and flexible and supportive HR practices and policies."
But with the global economic situation in such a precarious state, it could be a temptation for firms to sacrifice such practices, which could be seen as being expensive luxuries or just molly-coddling staff, when the priorities may be for a firm to do all it can to simply remain in business.
The experts, however, say such short-term thinking can only make matters worse for bosses. "Organisations that are great workplaces tend to do better in terms of financial performance than their industry peers," says Burchell. The Great Place to Work Institute found that companies which continue to invest in their people during down times actually fare better over the long term and bounce back more quickly.
"It can be difficult to hold that point of view in a challenging economic climate," concludes Burchell. "But if the firm is going to survive long term in a healthy, sustainable way, they need to continue to invest in creating a high trust, high performing work environment."