More Flexibility at Work Boosts Employee Health

Feb. 19, 2010
A new evidence review suggests that giving employees more flexibility in their work schedules is likely to boost their health through reduced blood pressure and stress. But interventions that are motivated or dictated by the needs of the employer, such as cutting hours, either have no effect on employee health or make it worse.

“Control at work is good for health,” said review co-author Clare Bambra, a researcher at Durham University in England.

“Given the absence of ill health effects associated with employee-controlled flexibility and the evidence of some positive improvements in some health outcomes,” Bambra said, more flexibility in work schedules “has the potential to promote healthier workplaces and improve work practices.”

In addition to physical risks, the workplace can pose a threat to health due to factors like high workloads, time pressures, lack of control and limited social interaction with others, said review lead author Kerry Joyce, also a researcher at Durham University. Stress, in turn, can contribute to conditions like heart disease, depression and anxiety.

“Flexible Working”

In the review, the authors sought to determine what researchers have discovered about the effects on health of “flexible working” – measures that give employees more autonomy. They also looked at other kinds of interventions, such as involuntary part-time employment and mandatory overtime, that help employers.

The researchers found 10 studies that fit their criteria for review inclusion. Three took place in the United States, two in Finland and one each in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia and Denmark. Another study analyzed workers in the U.K. and Germany.

Five studies examined workplaces that gave workers flexibility over their schedules in areas such as shift work and flextime. One study looked at how overtime affected employees, two examined the effects of abrupt and gradual retirement, one examined forced part-time unemployment and one looked at fixed-term contracts.

Four studies into self-scheduling of shifts and the one about gradual or partial retirement all showed that more flexibility for workers led to statistically significant improvements in health and in the workers’ senses of social support and community.

The studies examined the health in various ways. One Finnish study found that both average systolic blood pressure levels and pulse rates dropped in airline maintenance workers who had more flexibility over shift work. Another Finnish study, this one of hospital midwives, linked more flexibility over shifts to less mental strain and stress.

The other five studies suggested that those approaches had no significant effects on health (in the cases of overtime and flextime or made it worse (in the cases of involuntary part-time work).

These studies looked at various measurements of physical and mental health, such as “psychological distress” and people’s perceptions of their health. However, the researchers cautioned that the overtime study’s findings are questionable.

A U.S. study looked at men who were employed “inadequately” – they had involuntary part-time jobs – and found that they were more depressed than were fully employed people.

Another U.S. study looked at flextime at a Midwest company where workers were allowed to set their own schedules as long as they were at work between 1:30 and 3:30 p.m. Researchers could not find any effect on physical or mental stress among the workers.

In Control, In Better Health

Ron Goetzel, director of Emory University’s Institute for Health and Productivity Studies, said the review highlights the fact that there is relatively little research into flexible work schedules. The research that has occurred suggests “the more you feel in control over your work, over the schedule and the demands and timetable and so forth, the healthier you’ll be.”

Of course, high amounts of flexibility are not always feasible on the job, said Goetzel. An assembly-line worker, for instance, might not be able to take a break and walk around whenever he feels like it. “It’s a negotiation, like anything else,” Goetzel said.

In the future, Bambra said, “We need to know more about how the health effects of flexible working are experienced by different types of workers, such as women compared to men, old compared to young and skilled compared to unskilled population groups. This is important, as some forms of flexible working might be available only to employees with higher-status occupations, and this may serve to increase existing differences in health between social groups.”

The review appears in the The Cochrane Library, a publication of The Cochrane Collaboration, an international organization that evaluates research in all aspects of health care.

Sponsored Recommendations

ISO 45001: Occupational Health and Safety Management Systems (OHSMS)

March 28, 2024
ISO 45001 certification – reduce your organizational risk and promote occupational health and safety (OHS) by working with SGS to achieve certification or migrate to the new standard...

Want to Verify your GHG Emissions Inventory?

March 28, 2024
With the increased focus on climate change, measuring your organization’s carbon footprint is an important first action step. Our Green House Gas (GHG) verification services provide...

Download Free ESG White Paper

March 28, 2024
The Rise and Challenges of ESG – Your Journey to Enhanced Sustainability, Brand and Investor Potential

Work Safety Tips: 5 Tactics to Build Employee Engagement for Workplace Safety

March 13, 2024
Employee safety engagement strategies have become increasingly key to fostering a safer workplace environment. But, how exactly do you encourage employee buy-in when it comes ...

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of EHS Today, create an account today!