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Are flexible workers happy workers?

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FlexibilityA recent study interviewed 43 employees across a range of directorates within an NHS Trust to ascertain whether flexible working made them “happy”.

The study found that employees perceive that flexible working does makes them “happy”, and there are attitudinal/behavioural links between this happiness, discretionary behaviour and a number of performance outcomes.

Organizations need to focus more on employee happiness to encourage performance. HR practitioners should reflect on the impact of HR practices on happiness and which features of a job role are likely to promote happiness.

The study

The study harvested data from employees in an NHS Acute Trust. The investigation focused on their perceptions of the implementation of flexible working practices, one aspect of the Improving Working Lives (IWL) standard. The role of flexible working in promoting happiness in employees emerged unexpectedly from the data, as did the links between employee happiness and outcomes such as perceived performance and retention.

This fits with a high performance work systems HPWS approach, which is premised on the view that HR practices can boost organizational performance via positive employee responses.

The context: the NHS, HPWS and flexible working

In line with HPWS theory, the NHS has adopted a range of HR practices as a means to enhance organizational performance. One aspect of this is the IWL Standard which requires that a range of policies and practices are in place “that enable staff to manage a healthy balance between their work and their commitments outside work” (DoH, 2000). These policies which include flexible working have been promoted in the NHS in an attempt to improve outcomes such as recruitment, retention and employee performance.

Flexibility in this context is not about employers' demands for flexibility in scheduling work but rather about providing the employee with control over working time (either in duration, timing or location of work).

Practices

Practices are likely to include part time working, career breaks, job sharing, term time working and sabbaticals. These practices provide a route to flexible working via contractual variation of working hours, often focusing on time reduction mechanisms. There are also practices that focus on time arrangement rather than reduction, but nevertheless provide an employee with a contractual right to flexibility. Examples of this include compressed working weeks and flexi-time schemes.

Flexi-time is one of the most long-standing flexible working practices dating from the mid-1970s. Early research into flexi-time indicated that it improved attendance and performance, although no clear relationships were identified between flexitime and employee attitudes such as job satisfaction, despite it being considered to improve employee control over their working environment. Many of the other practices outlined above have become available only relatively recently but there appears to have been limited investigation of their outcomes. Indeed, flexible working practices were initially excluded from much of the theoretical HRM/performance work and investigations into HPWS.

However, more recent evidence suggests that flexible working should be included as a feature of high performance working and that such practices may moderate work intensification arising from other HPWS practices. Specifically in the NHS, flexible working practices have been found to have a range of positive outcomes including enhanced patient care, reduced nurse turnover, reduced use of temporary staff hours and lower sickness absence. Alongside the growing stream of research indicating that flexible working has positive outcomes in a variety of measures of work performance, there is also some limited evidence to support positive employee outcomes, e.g. improved satisfaction among staff and improved health and wellbeing of nursing staff.

“In designing HPWS, practitioners should consider the extent to which HR practices may influence attitudes beyond commitment and involvement.”

The employee perspective

The full version of the study presented employee views on the HR practice of flexible working in an NHS context, contributing to the small but growing body of research from the employee perspective. It gave voice to issues that were important to the respondents themselves, eschewing the tendency to pre-specify employee attitudes based on current theory and to rely on a single managerial-level informant or secondary sources. This was vital as it allowed happiness to be identified as important by respondents. In making sense of our data, we drew on a conceptualization of happiness as both active and passive positive states.

Flexible working was seen by employees to promote active states such as being pleased and cheerful through respondents perceiving, for example, that they were well treated and valued. Passive states were reflected in feelings such as contentment and calm, in for example, the reduction of work-life stress and again flexible working was seen to promote these states which is consistent with other research.

Our respondents further suggested that flexible working, in promoting happiness, gave rise to discretionary behaviour and other desirable performance outcomes. To theorise this, we drew on HPWS literature which specified causal chains between HR practices, attitudes and outcomes. We argued that happiness is an employee attitude and demonstrated how one HR practice, flexible working, can influence this attitude. This exploration of happiness contributes to HPWS understanding as current theory is pre-occupied with attitudes such as commitment and involvement.

A role for a number of other attitudes including trust and motivation is suggested, but happiness is generally neglected. Our respondents made no mention, however, of other attitudes. This is not to say that they are not important. Different HR practices may influence different attitudes and these relationships are little understood. Based on our study, we argue that flexible working is influential for the attitude of happiness. It may be that other practices will influence trust or motivation.

Implications and recommendations

While an emergent body of research considers employee happiness in the psychology literature, there is little recognition of it as an important employee attitude within HR research where wellbeing tends to be allied with health issues. While our findings are clearly exploratory and preliminary in nature, we suggest that they surface a potentially important and under-researched attitude and that happiness merits further research.

We support the return to the “happy/productive worker thesis” and recognition of the role of happiness when defined as subjective wellbeing in enhancing performance. We suggest that HPWS theory may need to incorporate a wider range of attitudes than is currently the case and that happiness is potentially one such attitude. This has implications for HR practice, as organizations could undertake strategies to better manage their employees to produce greater happiness and performance.

We suggest that HR practitioners would benefit from a more detailed understanding of employee perspectives on HR practices than currently exists and that this is an area they could explore in greater depth. We also suggest that, in designing HPWS, practitioners should consider the extent to which HR practices may influence attitudes beyond commitment and involvement. Happiness may be one such attitude and could lead to deeper understanding of which HR practices influence which attitudes and the extent to which HR practices have sufficient salience for employees to influence attitudes. It has been suggested that there are other key features in a job role which are critical to happiness, for example skill use, career prospects or money. HR practitioners may also need to consider how to design these within a HPWS in order to influence happiness.

We do not claim that happiness is the only employee attitude of relevance. Clearly there are a range of important employee attitudes and it is likely that these will be influenced by different HR practices. To identify the individual HR practices which influence specific employee attitudes within a HPWS will be extremely complex.

May 2011
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This is a shortened version of “Flexible working and happiness in the NHS” which originally appeared in Employee Relations, Volume 33, Number 2, 2011.

The authors are Carol Atkinson, and Laura Hall.