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Healthy Returns on Flex Work

September 1, 2010

Any employee attempting to juggle work/life responsibilities while reporting to an obdurate boss understands the angst-filled consequences. But a federally funded research consortium is digging deeper to determine whether some flexibility can improve blood pressure and other health indicators, paying off for employers and employees alike.

The Work, Family & Health Network, launched several years before the Obama administration recently spotlighted workplace flexibility, has already wrapped up several Phase I pilot studies looking at supervisor training and innovative scheduling, among other factors. The network’s $31 million Phase II, which runs until 2012, will more closely study how such accommodations can influence blood pressure, blood sugar control, body mass index and other physical warning signs.

“A huge part of our Phase II is looking at return on investment,” says Leslie Hammer, a professor of psychology at Portland State University in Oregon and a principal investigator of the research consortium. “We do expect that if we improve the health of workers that it will lead to improvement in the organizational bottom line.”

Researchers from eight institutions are involved in the multiphase project, which is funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health. The first phase, which ran from 2005 to 2008, covered a mix of employees, including lower-income workers filling shifts in grocery stores and nursing homes.

In March, the White House held a forum on workplace flexibility and released a report detailing trends and related economic benefits, including reduced turnover and absenteeism. Still, published data on physical health have been limited. Researchers have shown that workplace accommodations can reduce stress and boost an employee’s sense of well-being, Hammer says. “When we try to connect it to actual health outcomes, that’s much more complicated,” she says, citing the time, expense and logistics involved, including taking health measurements.

Ellen Bravo, executive director of the Family Values @ Work Consortium, applauds the Work, Family & Health Network for looking beyond white-collar workers. Too frequently, the discussion of flexibility is viewed as “synonymous with professional women who want to work fewer hours or telecommute,” says Bravo, whose group advocates for policies such as paid sick leave.

In one Phase I study slated for publication this year, researchers assessed the perspective of nursing home managers toward flexible policies. Employees reporting to managers who rated low- to mid-level were more likely to be diagnosed with two or more heart disease risk factors, the researchers found.

Research from Hammer, working in conjunction with Michigan State University, focused on managerial training at Midwestern grocery stores in such behaviors as resolving scheduling conflicts. Employees reporting to managers who were trained not only reported better job satisfaction, but also improved physical health.

The health findings were largely based on employee self-reports, Hammer cautions. But such results represent a good start, researchers say, toward further investigation into whether easing work/life stress also can lighten employee medical bills.

Workforce Management, July 2010, p. 3 -- Subscribe Now!