Employees with flexible work options are happier, more motivated and more likely to stay in their current role than those forced to return to the office, according to a new study.

The University of Melbourne’s Work Futures Hallmark Research Initiative team conducted a survey of 1,400 Australian workers to determine the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their work lives as part of its 2023 State of the Future of Work report.

The survey found clear benefits of flexible work for all involved.

Of those surveyed without access to flexible work, 55 per cent reported feeling exhausted, while 45 per cent of those with flexible work reported this.

Employees allowed to work flexibly also reported feeling more motivated in their job, with just over a third reporting feeling less motivated at work, compared with 41 per cent of those surveyed without flexible work.

Almost half of all the flexible workers surveyed said they feel more productive compared to the start of the pandemic, compared to less than a third of workers without flexible options.

The report, completed by a team of interdisciplinary researchers from the University of Melbourne, called on the government to consider legislating a right for workers to access flexible and remote work, in line with several other OECD nations.

The onset of the pandemic forced most workplaces to adopt flexible work options in some form, such as working from home, a four-day work week and flexible hours.

As pandemic restrictions eased, companies found that attempting to scale back these flexible options led to many employees simply quitting, with flexible work becoming a key selling point for many workers.

Of those surveyed by the researchers, just 10 per cent were in favour of traditional work with no remote or flexible options, and three quarters of young workers said that a lack of flexible options in the workplace would motivate them to leave their role.

The report also found that “prime aged workers” – those aged 18 to 54 years old – have suffered worse workplace health due to the pandemic compared to older workers aged 54 years and older.

These workers reported having poorer mental health, more exhaustion, and less motivation with their work.

One in two workers aged under 54 years old reported feeling exhausted at work, 40 per cent said they are less motivated in their role and a third reported experiencing difficulty concentrating at work due to responsibilities outside of their jobs, the study found.

“Prime aged workers are the future of the Australian workforce, and they are burnt out from the pandemic and see their career opportunities as limited,” the report said.

“Since the start of the pandemic, their workplace motivation is down, and they are unable to concentrate at work.

“They are exhausted and time poor. There’s little opportunity for advancement and their mental health is suffering. While Australia did not experience a ‘great resignation’ in 2021 and 2022, it is clear that the Australian prime aged workforce has not recovered, and businesses may face declining productivity and workforce attrition if they do not attend to these issues.”

The report found that Australian workplaces are often unsafe, with a range of people facing discrimination. The research found that 18 per cent of those surveyed reported experiencing discrimination due to their skin colour, ethnic origin or religion.

Of the First Nations Australians surveyed, 27 per cent reported discrimination in the last year.

Those with chronic illnesses have also felt the impact of the pandemic more than others, with just under three-quarters saying that their health condition was caused or worsened by stress associated with their work, according to the report.

The pandemic spurred the rapid adoption of flexible work options. A Senate Committee recently backed a trial of the four-day work week – which sees workers receiving the same amount of pay for working 80 per cent of their hours with the same level of productivity – in the public service after hearing “substantial evidence” about its effectiveness.

Another recent report also found that fully remote tech workers earn more than their counterparts who work full-time in an office.