Work, Family, and Health Network builds case for flexible schedules
Juggling child care to fit work schedules, bringing work home to fit around family responsibilities, ensuring neither work nor family gets short-changed—these are a few of the things that can make life stressful. How does managing these responsibilities affect the health of parents and children? Are there ways to adjust life in the workplace to improve family health and to meet the needs of employers at the same time?
Supported by NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers within the Work, Family, and Health Network investigate these questions with the goal of improving health for employees and their families. Dr. Rosalind King, in NICHD's Population Dynamics Branch, collaborates with the Network on its efforts to find ways for employees to balance work and family demands.
How would you describe work-family conflict?
Work-family conflict occurs when what's going on at work interferes with employees' ability to handle their family life. There's also family-work conflict, which is when family demands cause problems in the workplace.
The idea is that work-family conflict is a stressor, and when people are experiencing stress, they may not be as careful or may not think as well as they should. If you can reduce the stressors in people's lives, they are more able to behave in safe and healthy ways, such as cutting back on smoking or drinking alcohol, because they're not feeling the need to use those substances to relieve stress.
The Network trained supervisors to be more supportive of their employees and also gave employees more control and flexibility over their own work schedules. What did you find after putting these practices in place?
We found that giving supervisors training in how to be supportive lowered the workers' experiences of work-family conflict. Our studies found that their employees reported better physical and mental health, less work-family conflict, and greater job satisfaction.
Employees at a consumer electronics store headquarters, for example, were allowed to work in teams to plan work schedules for the entire group, with a focus on getting the work done, not on when or where it was done.
We found that managerial style had a measurable health impact on the workers. We also found that giving people more schedule control or more flexible scheduling did result in improved health behaviors. People reported sleeping more and reported spending more time with their children. Our studies have also found that employees in this type of environment have beneficial health behaviors, such as being more likely to quit smoking or to smoke less. . . .
We also are starting to find some health benefits among patients in the nursing homes [where we led interventions]. One finding is that providing nursing home workers greater scheduling flexibility is associated with fewer pressure ulcers among the patients. This does not show a cause-effect relationship, however. We don't know, for example, if it is because the intervention affected work-family conflict, which then affected the behaviors. That's what we're still trying to figure out.
Could you say more about how the Network's interventions affect sleep?
We found that helping parents deal with their work-family conflict improves their sleep and may even improve the sleep of their children.
In terms of the employees' own sleep, the effect averages out to about an extra 8 minutes a day, which is over an hour a week, and is actually comparable to what's been found in clinical studies of medications to assist people in sleeping. More sleep on the part of parents is good for kids because parents can do a better job parenting when they're well rested.
What's the finding that's been most surprising to you?
We did have a difference in the findings in terms of the intervention and outcomes between white-collar and blue-collar work sites. The effect on work-family conflict has been greater in the white-collar workforce. . . . We're trying to work out why it worked better in one type of work setting than the other, so that the research results can be informative to the full range of employers.
What are the cost implications of implementing employee-friendly or family-friendly policies?
The Network has economists who are looking at the return on investment when a workplace introduces more flexible scheduling and trains supervisors to be more supportive. They are showing that it's cost-effective to do this kind of project—that it's worth it to implement these kinds of policies and practices—and that you do see healthier workers who are more productive and also have lower health care costs.
How can employers make use of this research?
One of the things that we heard over and over in this process is the importance of making the business case for any workplace changes we suggest. We've had a board composed of employers and employees advise the researchers during this process, and we have made an effort to produce materials that will matter to businesses. [Learn more about the Network's Toolkits to Achieve Workplace Change.]
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The Work, Family, and Health Network includes researchers from Harvard University School of Public Health, Kaiser Permanente's Center for Health Research, Pennsylvania State University, Portland State University, Purdue University, RTI International, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Southern California. For more information, visit the Network website.
Originally Posted: November 18, 2015