Agile Working: Prosthesis for Mental Health

I have been fortunate in my career to encounter a variety of memorable people. As an executive coach and founder of a small IT consultancy my reach of working types and practices is varied.


15 years ago I took an idea and turned it into a business. Interest grew quickly and in order to balance my coaching activity responsibilities I realised I needed support. Via the local job centre I placed an ad for an IT administrator, to work alongside me, and waited for the responses to come through. That was when I met Rob.


Rob had all the pre-requisites I was looking for and seemed to be a thoroughly nice chap too. We discussed the role requirements, and when I said I thought he would be a good fit, he looked nervous. He told me that there was something he had to reveal before he could accept the position.


Rob had been diagnosed with bipolar affective disorder, also known as manic depression; a mental disorder with periods of depression and elevated mood.


15 years ago the diagnosis for mental disorders was blunter than it is currently. If Rob was being diagnosed today it would be classified as Neuroatypical where one’s neurological function doesn’t quite fit what the medical community defines as “normal”.


He explained that whereas he was more than capable of doing the job, able to take on the responsibilities that it entailed, and meet deadlines, his only issue was that he could only do it with flexibility to manage his condition. He chose not to use medication but manage his symptoms in an organised way.


His condition manifested itself as having variable control over swings in emotion, sometimes over weeks or months.


This meant he required flexibility to work the hours required to do the tasks, and would make up any downtime as soon as possible. He stressed he could also work from home and still achieve the results.


Rob was brave to open up about his condition and by being honest about his needs to help him do the job, accompanied with a desire to do the job, he seemed a good candidate for a small business like mine.


Working with Rob was successful. It was a mutually beneficial relationship – I gave him the flexibility to do the job and he delivered.


Although 15 years ago mental health issues were not as openly discussed and understood as they are today, intuitively, I took a chance and it paid off. I liked and respected his openness, his attitude and his spirit to find solutions.


Rob commented “Natalie never evaluated me in terms of personal risk. She simply evaluated me on my ability to do the work.


That laid the groundwork for a relationship that left room to be open about personal strengths and weaknesses, and in that uncommon level of trust. I found room for me to do some great work.


It was a great professional opportunity and a brilliant lesson in trust and empathy”.


Rob has since gone on to personally employ dozens of staff to work with him along pretty much every version of ‘atypical’ you can imagine: gender identity, neurochemical and otherwise. The only constant he’s found is that clear communication and evidence-driven assessment beats every other tactic hands down!


When probed on what he feels the biggest gap in leadership development or executive coaching is currently, he believes it is business empathy.


Flexible working in practice

Flexible working begins in the mind. If you believe you can work flexibly and still achieve what is expected of you then there is no reason not to. Some roles do not lean themselves to working remotely but flexible hours may help.


For flexible working to be successful for both employer and employee, openness and trust is required. Technology and advancing communications are disrupting the tradition of work being office based and 9-to-5 with no room for flexibility. One can no longer ignore the possibilities resulting from offering flexible working to a diverse potential workforce.


Many people leave their careers mid-point for a variety of reasons: health, parenthood, personal reasons, necessity to fulfil a caring role and many more. Then it can become difficult to return to work, if the only option is a 9-to-5 fixed location employment.


Flexible working options can widen the reach of potential candidates that would otherwise get lost in the system. All employees have the right to issue a flexible working request – not just carers and parents, as long as they have worked for 26 weeks with that employer:


Agile working is all about being creative with your resources to engage your employees by providing a flexible environment to enable them to channel their productivity: in an office space or virtual connection, where destination is irrelevant.


Perhaps agile working requires a shift in mind-set and demonstration of trust from a leadership perspective.


If ‘The Agile Workplace of the Future’ was happening 15 years ago, what’s the excuse for it not working today?


By Natalie Dee, Head of Programmes and Executive Coach, Quidnunc