WHY EMPLOYEES NEED WORKPLACE FLEXIBILITY
Content prepared by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College

Employees report that they are more productive and more engaged in their work when there are able to balance the demands of work with other aspects of their lives. Improvements in physical and mental health are also associated with workplace flexibility. Below is evidence linking flexible work options to employee and family well-being.

 

REDUCING STRESS

Research shows that flexible work arrangements may reduce stress because employees working flexibly are more satisfied with their jobs, more satisfied with their lives, and experience better work-family balance. (21) Overall, employees who have a high work-life fit fare much better than employees who have moderate or low levels of work-life fit. They are more highly engaged and less likely to look for a new job in the next year, and they enjoy better overall health, better mental health, and lower levels of stress. (40)

Studies

Participation in formal arrangements that involve flextime promotes a sense among workers that they have the discretion to fit job-related responsibilities into their broader lives, and this discretion contributes to less stress and burnout. A study of more than 19,000 employees at nine distinct companies (in the pharmaceutical, technical, manufacturing, financial, and professional services sectors and in a university) showed that stress and burnout was lower among workers engaged in all types of workplace flexibility arrangements. (44) Similarly, a study of employees in a large multinational company found that greater levels of flexibility were associated with better health: that is, with less self-reported stress and strain, and better physical health. (16)

 

REDUCING NEGATIVE SPILLOVER

Spillover is a process by which attitudes and behavior carry over from one role to another. Spillover between work and family life can be regarded as negative (i.e., work-family conflict) or positive (work-family enhancement). "These two dimensions of spillover might co-exist to some degree. For example, a job that provides a high degree of negative spillover in the form of long hours and psychological stress carryover into home life, at the same time, could provide a high degree of positive spillover in the form of family financial security and opportunities for personal growth that make for a better family member." (89)

Studies

The National Study of the Changing Workforce (NSCW) conducted by the Families and Work Institute found that employees in more flexible workplaces exhibited less negative spillover between work and family life. This was found to have benefits for both employers and employees.

  • For employers: less negative spillover from life off the job to work that impairs productivity;
  • For employees: less negative spillover from work to life off the job that reduces the quality of personal and family life. (8)

A meta-analysis of 60 published studies in the United States and Canada showed that employees who have higher job involvement or job stress or spend more time at work have more work interference with their family life than family interference with their work. However, employees who had more schedule flexibility at work experienced less spillover of work stress into the home. (17)

 

IMPROVE WORK-FAMILY BALANCE

Work-family balance has two dimensions: work interference with family and family interference with work. Characteristics of the job and the workplace can have a positive or negative effect on family life, while aspects of an employee's family situation can affect the employee's performance and attitudes toward work. (Byron, 2005) The availability of a variety of flexible work arrangements can help employees maximize work-family balance, which benefits both the employee and the employer.

A recent study of the effects of the availability of schedule flexibility at work on the work-to-family interface found that flexible schedules reduced work-family conflict for women, but not for men. Schedule flexibility provided employees with the opportunity to minimize work-family conflict, as well as to promote work-family enrichment and improve functioning and performance at work and home. (20)

A study of managers employed in workplaces in five different countries found that employees working in an environment viewed as more family supportive experienced lower levels of work-family conflict. Reduced work-family conflict was in turn related to greater job and family satisfaction, followed by greater overall life satisfaction. (59)

CASE EXAMPLES

At a large international accounting firm, "strong policies allow employees to care for family members who become ill, including mothers and fathers. Employees can have up to 16 weeks to help a close relative through a crisis. When asked about the costs the company's flexibility practices involve, the [spokesperson] laughed. "We're accountants," she said; "we've thought all that through, and let me assure you, the cost of our flexibility practices is nothing compared to the cost of losing good people and hiring and training new ones." (34)

A medium-sized specialty manufacturer/distributor says: "We believe our people do their best work when they can be equally successful as parents and community members. That's where flexibility matters. We make sure employees can attend school activities with their children, take parents to medical appointments and assist with community activities. Providing this balance has given us a more productive, stable and reliable workforce." (34)

 

IMPROVE WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Work-life balance refers to the ability of an individual to balance work and non-work responsibilities that may not necessarily include family life. Work-life balance provides an individual with sufficient time, energy, and well-being to engage in activities that promote personal growth and enrichment. Work-life balance has three dimensions: work interference with personal life, personal life interference with work, and work/personal life enhancement.

CASE EXAMPLES

A small advertising/marketing firm in Michigan reports that "Working today may not be a choice, but where the best talent works is a choice, particularly for people who want to lead interesting, meaningful lives—they want their time at work to support their life and family goals. Our marketing company uses flexibility as a way to help ensure that people like their work and see it as something that benefits their family, rather than detracts from it. We believe flexibility has a strategic purpose...It helps us attract and retain the best people, which is exactly what we need to give our clients the best services." (34)

At an accounting firm in Illinois, individual employees design the flexible work arrangement they want, completing questionnaires that help them explore the impact on business operations. Employees and their supervisors discuss these issues at greater length, and if all the relevant business issues and contingency plans are well defined, the change is likely to be approved. Staff who have participated in this process tell us they feel less stress, handle personal emergencies more easily and have more opportunities for skill building and career growth, (34)

 

Studies

In a study investigating the relationship between the availability of flexible work schedules and work-life balance, employees operating under flexible work schedules displayed significantly higher levels of work-life balance than their counterparts utilizing traditional fixed-hour schedules. The perceived usability and availability of these work schedules appears to be a key element in achieving work/life balance for many office-based employees. (45)

According to a 2009 survey of employers and employees, "86% of workers say work/life balance and fulfillment are top career priorities, while only 12% of employers believe these to be crucial to hiring and retention ...90% of organizations say their work/life balance programs have improved worker satisfaction, and nearly three-fourths (74%) say they have improved retention of workers." (76)

Analysis of data from the 2002 National Study of the Changing Workforce shows that "among older workers, the odds of being very satisfied with life are 67.4% higher for those who have a high level of flexibility on the job than for those who do not." (54)

 

BETTER PHYSICAL & MENTAL WELL-BEING

The findings of many studies suggest that flexibility in working patterns that gives the worker more choice or control is likely to have positive effects on health and well-being. For example, a recent study of workers in extended-care facilities found that "Employees who worked for managers with low work-family openness and creativity were more likely to have elevated CVD [cardiovascular disease] risks based on both biomarker assessments and reports of doctor diagnoses. They also sleep almost half an hour less per night than employees with managers with high levels of openness and creativity in relation to work-family issues." (7)

A cross-sectional and longitudinal study analyzing 2004-2005 data of employees from a large pharmaceutical company showed "that individuals with more flexibility also have healthier lifestyle behaviors," such as better sleep and self-appraised lifestyle. The results implied that "when employees are given the flexibility they need, they will in turn participate in healthier behaviors and presumably reduce negative health-related outcomes such as sickness-absences, stress, and other work-related impairments." (44)

A study of 2002 data from the Families and Work Institute's National Study of the Changing Workforce showed that using 13 specific flexibility measurements, employees with more access to workplace flexibility reported fewer mental health problems. "Even when education level and earnings are taken into account ... there is still a strong correlation between access to flexible work arrangements and better mental health." (39)

Self-scheduling of shift interventions and employee-controlled partial/early retirement were found to improve health (including systolic blood pressure and heart rate; tiredness; mental health, sleep duration, sleep quality and alertness; and self-rated health status) and/or well-being (co-workers' social support and sense of community) and no ill health effects were observed. The studies of overtime working, flextime, and fixed-term contracts found no significant effects on physical, mental, or general health or on any of the well-being outcomes examined. Importantly, however, the study on overtime failed to provide detailed information on either the amount or duration of overtime worked, so it is therefore difficult to draw any conclusions regarding the effects of overtime on workers' health and well-being. However, given the small number of studies included in the review and their methodological limitations, caution should be applied to this conclusion. (56)