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Agile working and the impact on well-being and mental health: How to support digital resilience

In this article, Christine Grant and Emma Russell, editors of Agile Working and Well-Being in the Digital Age discuss agile working and mental health.

Remote working has grown exponentially, following the great homeworking experiment that arose during the covid lockdowns.  This style of working has been retained by many organisations and seen as supportive of both work performance and well-being. Agile working goes one-step further and can be defined more broadly than homeworking in that it involves freedom to work at different times, places and in different roles. It is a boundaryless way to complete work based on business need and supported by mobile technologies. For many it is a productive and flexible way of working.

However, the downsides of agile working are often overlooked and especially so when related to well-being and mental health.  We know that working remotely can increase our outputs but this can be detrimental to the amount of time we need to spend inputting work (see Grant, Wallace & Spurgeon, 2013).  Work, when available all of the time, can fill gaps that we may otherwise have utilised to support our well-being.  Use of technology for long periods can also make us cognitively weary and reduce our effectiveness; constant interruptions from different types of media can affect our ability to focus and therefore reduce our overall effectiveness (see Charalampous et al. 2018; Russell et al., 2020).  Working past normal hours and not taking breaks and/or sitting for long hours can increase our risk of sedentary working and the ill health associated with lack of movement including musculoskeletal issues and low mental health.

Building digital resilience can help us to manage the way that we work remotely and to ameliorate some of the more negative aspects. There are five areas where organisations and workers can focus our attention when increasing our resilience towards agile working (for more see chapter 9, Agile working in the Digital Age):

1.    Increasing ‘social and relational’ competencies by managing social skills through the use of technology.  The pandemic has shown that networking has reduced through remote working, it has become harder to make new networks and to retain existing ones, this is essential for creativity.  It is important therefore, that technology is used to increase contacts and to retain existing networks.  Social support is also vital for building resilience, problem solving, and this takes increased effort when working across multi locations, building sustainable relationships can help when hitting difficulties. Social isolation is found to occur when remote working, this is a key psychological factor manifesting over a longer period of time that can affect mental well-being (Charalampous et. Al, 2018; Grant, et al., 2013; Merrell et al., 2022). 

2.    Building trust with our work colleagues. Line managers are especially encouraged to help staff develop trusting relationships so that workers gain a sense of autonomy. Autonomy enhances the feeling of self-control and this can support the mental health of the individuals who are working to high demands. For organisations, increasing trust can build a sense of belonging and engagement.  Again, we know that organisational engagement and loyalty can drift away when working remotely. In a wide scale study of 670 employees in a large Telecoms organisation it was found that those with ‘well-adjusted’ remote working skills and trust showed good levels of well-being, productivity and a sense of belonging to the organisation (Tramontano et al., 2021). 

3.    Keeping well-informed and developing workers’ knowledge of Information Technologies is vital to ensure they are up-to-date and that organisations provide the right kind of training to support agile workers.  Increasing workers’ tenacity and self-confidence with technology can enable workers to deal with the daily demands of work and attain work goals (Russell et al., 2021).  The increase in zoom and other virtual tools during the pandemic has shown just how much tech can be used to support our work.

4.    Helping workers understand when to put in boundaries and to switch off from technology and work.  Agile working increases our ability to move around and work freely but this comes with personal responsibility. Workers need to develop personal efficiency, to be self-aware of behaviours when related to technology use.  Prioritising both work and non-work activities and creating cognitive flexibility to move between spheres of life is important here.  Organisations can support development of these skills through coaching and mentoring of agile workers. 

5.    Finally, self-care and emotional competencies, developing person-centred ways to develop digital resilience. It is clear from both qualitative and quantitative research studies, conducted across multiple organisations, that not one approach fits everyone and reviewing personal strategies can help to improve well-being (see Grant & Clarke, 2020; Russell et al., 2021; Tramontano et al., 2021). Looking after emotions remotely can be vital to ensuring workers retain a clear mind and are aware of when less positive emotions may affect work. It is important to seek social support from peers and managers. Organisations can support this by checking in regularly with staff and developing clear guidance for agile workers. 

Engaging with our well-being whilst agile working can be vital, to ensure workers understand how to work better, but also when to stop working and to refocus energy.  Agile working is not the ‘easy option’ and it requires a great deal of consideration both as individuals but also from employers to fully support this method of working.  

Agile working is here to stay and technology alone cannot support our well-being and mental health. Workers need support to understand how to make new ways of working work for them, with clear guidance on how to use technology most effectively to support both work and non-working lives. 

Christine Grant is Deputy Head of the School of Psychological, Social and Behavioural Sciences at Coventry University, UK. Dr Grant is a chartered and registered Occupational Psychologist and an applied researcher in the psychology of remote e-working. Her work explores the impact of technology on remote e-workers work-life balance, job effectiveness and well-being, with a particular interest in developing measures, interventions and coping strategies for employees, supervisors and organisations.

Emma Russell is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Management at the University of Sussex, UK. Dr Russell is a chartered and registered Occupational Psychologist whose work straddles the domains of academia and professional practice. Her research focuses on personality differences in how people deal with new technology across a range of applied organisational settings, and how this impacts resources, well-being and work goals.