Over the past year or so, we’ve witnessed an increased awareness of employee mental health. And while previously workers were expected to show up unless there was something physically wrong with them, we now understand that mental health challenges can take a much greater toll on productivity and overall wellbeing.

The pandemic has also brought to light the benefits – and challenges – of working from home. Overall, we’ve never before had as good a chance to examine how the hours we work impact our mental health.

Let’s take a look at the connection between the two and what you can do in the scheduling department to help nurture your employees’ mental health.

The Drawbacks of an Inflexible Schedule

Working the 9-to-5 is something most employees (excluding only perhaps Gen Z-ers) have been accustomed to. And when we take a moment to dwell on how long and how bloody the road to get there has been, we can’t help but feel grateful some sort of order has been imposed on the way we work.

However, this rigid schedule has started to become harmful, and the rate of technological advancements is now calling into question the way we lead our (working) lives. With the ability some industries offer of working anywhere at practically any time, the rigidity of an inflexible working day is highlighting the toll it’s taking on our mental health.

Throw in an hour’s commute, the fact that most businesses have the same working hours as you do, and it quickly becomes apparent that the 9-to-5 allows us to do nothing but work, sleep, and squeeze in a couple of hours of chores and errands. We can practically forget about relaxation and socialization.

Rigid schedules make for poor mental health, as dissatisfied employees feel like they’re watching as their life slips by while they’re stuck at work. If they’re also pulling overtime, their performance quickly begins to suffer – which makes us wonder why employers insist on it in the first place.

Shorter Hours Lead to Increased Productivity

Contrary to popular belief, a shorter work week actually makes employees more, and not less productive. The reasoning is simple: when people have more time to rest, relax and get everything they want to do done, they are able to focus better at work.

The same goes for a shorter workday, as a six-hour day would naturally need to eliminate all the superfluous activities an eight-hour day is full of. That includes meetings that run on too long, unimportant interruptions, the overuse of chat applications, and the like.

When working shorter hours, employees have the time to exercise, time to see friends, and the time to just feel bored. All of these activities are beneficial to their mental health, which will naturally translate to their performance at the office as well.

A Caveat on the Importance of Sleep

We already know that a lack of sleep can significantly impact work performance. After all, we’ve all felt it ourselves. Just one night of less than adequate sleep can quickly morph into a day of moodiness, plenty of yawning, and a shorter temper.

However, the modern 9-to-5 workday simply begs us to sleep as little as possible. There’s the commute, the mad rushing around to get everything done either early in the morning or late in the evening. If we are also to have some fun on our workdays (as opposed to merely on the weekends), we are likely to stay up late just to catch up with our favorite show.

A consistent lack of sleep will lead to a significant dent in both our physical and mental health. Our performance will suffer greatly, our decision-making abilities will dwindle, and we certainly won’t be able to perform at the top of our game.

Apart from the working-hour flexibility we need to advocate for, we should all consider our sleep habits and do our best to improve them. Something as simple as investing in a better mattress can make a world of difference.

Remote Work is Here to Stay and a Case for Personalization

The pandemic has shown us that it’s not necessary to be in the same room with everyone else to get things done. It has also highlighted the importance of flexible working hours – hours that allow us to take care of our work duties but also spend time with family without thinking about our jobs.

While remote work can’t remain a reality for some, it should certainly remain an option for others. For years, an argument most managers have been reaching for runs along the lines of “how do I know you’re doing your job if I can’t see you doing your job.” But in 2020, this argument has lost a lot of its power.

Allowing employees to choose their own hours and to work from home when it suits them (especially when their mental health demands a change of scenery) should become the new norm.

The difficulty that remains is ensuring that communication lines remain open and that one member of the team is not inconvenienced by another’s absence. However, another lesson learned from the pandemic is that with a bit of forethought and organization, tasks can get accomplished in less time, with less oversight, and with less chit-chat.

If we are to prioritize employee mental health, we need to prioritize flexibility. We need to reinforce our ability to construct our own work hours and environments that best suit us as individuals. Luckily, we now have the empirical evidence that proves this way of doing business is not just feasible but actually much more efficient.

Final Thoughts

The hours we work greatly impact the way we feel not only about our jobs but also our lives in general. Working more flexible hours is greatly beneficial to employee mental health, though not always achievable. Hopefully, more employers will place some much-needed emphasis on flexibility in the coming years, and the workplace will undergo yet another positive transformation.