A Flexible Work Arrangement May Have Health Benefits

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New research published in the Cochrane Library’s Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews has found that having flexibility in work schedules can have both physical and mental health benefits.

Examples of flexible or alternate work arrangements include self-schedule start and end times, telecommuting from home, job sharing, and gradual or partial retirement options.

In a review of 10 previous studies that included more than 16,000 people, researchers from Durham University and University of Newcastle, both in the U.K., and the University of Montreal found that having the ability to have more flexible work options in order to meet personal needs was associated with improvements in blood pressure, sleep quality, and overall mental health due to a reduction in stress.

The review also found that flexible work schedules was associated with improvements in alertness and heart rate, as well as secondary health outcomes such as perceived social support in the workplace and a sense of community.

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Time spent at the workplace is often greater than the time spent with families and in personal pursuits. The consequences of losing an overall work-life balance can result in conditions such as obesity, heart disease, and certain cancers due to factors such as increased use of packaged and convenience foods (ie fast food), decrease in the amount of time spent doing physical activity, and the lack of sleep from anxiety.

Workplaces can use this study to their advantage. A worker who gets the appropriate amount of sleep, for example, is less tired and more productive during working hours. Having time to dedicate to one’s health can reduce overall healthcare costs for employers as well. And happy employees are often more engaged with company activities.

Flexible working options are becoming increasingly popular in many parts of the United Kingdom. In fact, last April, the British government extended a policy to allow parents of children aged 16 and under to request an alternative working arrangement to accommodate home life. The previous policy was restricted to parents of young children, aged six and under.

The trend has yet to take off in the United States, with fewer than a third of employees having the option for flexible working schedules, according to a 2009 report by the AARP.

SOURCE: Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, online February 17, 2010.

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