Flexible Work Might Improve Employees' Health

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An analysis of recent studies suggests that employee-controlled flexible working arrangements, such as self-scheduled work hours and telework, have a positive impact on employees' mental and physical health and their general well-being.

The analysis, Flexible Working Conditions and Their Effects on Employee Health and Wellbeing, is by Britain's Cochrane Collaboration, which conducts systematic reviews of the effects of health care interventions. Ten controlled studies evaluated the effects of six types of flexible working arrangements: self-scheduling, flextime, overtime, gradual retirement, involuntary overtime and fixed-term contract work.

"In our review, we tried to establish the effects of different forms of flexible working by examining the research that's taken place over the last few decades. Some flexible working is employer led. Other forms, such as self-scheduling of hours, are employee led. We wanted to see if the health effects of these interventions differed," said researcher Clare Bambra of Durham University in the U.K., in a February 2010 podcast.

More Control, Less Stress

Overall, the findings tentatively suggest that giving workers more choice or control over their working patterns is likely to have positive effects. The researchers found evidence that self-scheduling of shift interventions and employee-controlled partial/early retirement improved health outcomes, including systolic blood pressure and heart rate, tiredness, mental health, sleep duration, sleep quality and alertness and self-rated health status. Improvements were also noted in well-being, such as co-workers' social support and sense of community.

In contrast, interventions that were motivated or dictated by organizational interests, such as involuntary overtime, showed no significant positive effects on physical, mental or general health or on any of the well-being outcomes examined.

"Although we need to be cautious in interpreting the existing research into flexible working conditions," said Bambra, "flexible working initiatives which give workers more choice, more control, such as self-scheduling of work hours, seem likely to have positive effects on health and well-being and also no obvious ill health effects in the short term. This makes self-scheduling of work hours a plausible means through which policy-makers and employees can promote healthier workplaces and improve work practices."

In short, she concluded, "control at work is good for health."

Stephen Miller is an online editor/manager for SHRM.