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Workplace Flexibility Improves Employees' Health Behavior

December 6 2011 - Flexibility in the workplace improved workers' health behavior and well-being - improving the amount and quality of sleep and better health management - according to a study in the December issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. The authors include University of Minnesota sociology professors Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen, with Eric Tranby, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware, and Qinlei Huang, a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota.

The researchers used longitudinal data collected from 608 employees at the Best Buy headquarters in Richfield, Minnesota before and after a flexible workplace initiative was implemented in 2005. They looked at changes in health-promoting behaviors and health outcomes among the workers involved in the initiative in comparison with employees who did not participate.

The Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) initiative reoriented employees and managers away from when and where work was completed towards measurable results, allowing participants to change when and where they worked based on their individual needs and job responsibilities without needing permission from managers - or even telling them.

According to Phyllis Moen:

"Our study shows that moving from viewing time at the office as a sign of productivity, to emphasizing actual results can create a work environment that fosters healthy behavior and well-being. This has important policy implications, suggesting that initiatives creating broad access to time flexibility encourage employees to take better care of themselves."

Major findings were:

  • Participants in the ROWE initiative reported getting almost an extra hour (52 minutes) of sleep on nights before work.
  • Participants managed their health differently, being less likely to feel obliged to work when sick and more likely to go to a doctor when necessary - even when they were busy.
  • The ROWE workplace initiative increased employees' sense of schedule control and reduced conflict between work and family life. This led to improved sleep quality, energy levels, self-reported health, and sense of personal mastery and reduced emotional exhaustion and psychological distress.

Erin Kelly added:

"Narrower flexibility policies allow some 'accommodations' for family needs, but are less likely to promote employee health and well-being or to be available to all employees."

Flexibility Leads To Healthier Lifestyle

Research from Wake Forest University School of Medicine published in The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2008 found that employees who believe they have flexibility in the workplace tend to sustain healthier lifestyle habits.

Lead author Joseph G. Grzywacz said:

"People who believe they have flexibility in their work lives have healthier lifestyles. Individuals who perceive an increase in their flexibility are more likely to start some positive lifestyle behaviours. This study is important because it reinforces the idea that workplace flexibility is important to workplace health."

The authors explain that there has been little previous research into the widespread belief that workplace flexibility is an essential element of effective worksite health promotion programs. The study analysed Health Risk Appraisals (HRAs) completed by employees of a large multinational pharmaceutical company. This employer is consistently recognized by Working Mother magazine as among the most family-friendly in the United States. A significant reason is its commitment to flexibility (such as compressed workweeks, flextime, job sharing and remote or telework). Employees with a variety of jobs and responsibilities completed the HRA, including executives, administrative support staff, and warehouse and production workers.

Joseph Grzywacz commented:

"These weren't all office workers - that's an important point. This isn't just about high-level office workers - these people perform a wide variety of tasks within the company."

Data was analyzed to determine if lifestyle behaviors varied between employees with different levels of perceived flexibility and whether changes in flexibility over a one-year period were predictive of changes in health behavior. The study focused on frequency of physical activity, engagement in stress management programs, participation in health education activities, healthful sleep habits, and self-appraised overall lifestyle.

Joseph Grzywacz concluded:

"Overall, the results showed that nearly all the health behaviors examined in this study were associated with perceived flexibility. Although further research is needed, these results suggest that flexibility programs that are situated within a broader organizational commitment to employee health may be useful for promoting positive lifestyle habits."

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