Do flexible work conditions make healthier employees?

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Much time and effort has been dedicated to researching the mental health benefits of flexible work environments, but can the ability to leave work early to watch your son’s soccer game, or arrive at the office a bit later in the morning in order to see to some personal errands, have broader physical health benefits beyond making you feel a bit less frazzled? According to new research published in the Cochrane Library’s Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, it seems so. In a review of 10 previous studies examining the health implications of flexible work conditions for more than 16,000 people, researchers from the U.K.’s Durham University and University of Newcastle, as well as the University of Montreal, found that flexible work schedules—when employees can shift their starting times, for example—were associated with improvements in blood pressure, sleep and overall mental health. Specifically, the review showed that more flexibility in work schedules was associated with improvements in alertness, sleep quality, tiredness, heart rate and other primary health outcomes, as well as benefits to secondary health outcomes, such as perceived social support in the workplace and sense of community. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, in all of the studies included in the review, researchers found no evidence for negative effects of more flexible work schedules.

This preliminary analysis was intended to shed light on the potential health benefits of flexible work options, which are increasingly popular throughout Scandinavia, and have recently gained some ground in the U.K. Last April, the British government extended a policy that allowed parents of children ages six and under to request flexible work arrangements to include parents of children ages 16 and younger, for example. In the U.S., the phenomenon is a bit slower to catch on—fewer than a third of U.S. employees have flexible work options, according to 2009 estimates from the AARP. Yet, the economic atrophy of recent years may have contributed to growth in workplace flexibility—as companies unable to reward employees with bonuses or raises may turn to other forms of compensation, Reuters reported early last year.

Previous research too, of course, has indicated the benefits of flexible work environments toward positive mental health outcomes. And while these latest findings are promising, the researchers stress that more study is vital to understanding the more nuanced dynamics of the relationship between flexible work and improved health outcomes. For example, employees who are most frequently granted workplace leeway are generally higher-ranking, and as such are likely of higher socioeconomic status, which could impact their overall health apart from work scheduling. To truly grasp the benefits of flexible working conditions, the researchers say, additional study analyzing health outcomes among a wide range of workers—from high-ranking executives to hourly employees—is critical to gaining a deeper understanding of the issue, and helping to shape future workplace policy.

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