Can a Flexible Boss Improve Your Health?

Having a supportive and flexible workplace may add years to your life, according to a novel nationwide study released Tuesday by the Work, Family and Health Network.

The preliminary findings -- compiled from eight federally-funded research teams across the country -- show employers' policies can directly impact workers' risk of cardiovascular disease, how much they sleep each night, their families' well-being and personal job satisfaction.

The three-year study looked at a range of industries, including long-term elderly care, hotels and hospitality, retail and grocery stores and several large white-collar firms.

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The report pinpointed significant impacts of workplace culture on the health and wellness of workers and their families. Among the findings:

-- Workers are twice as likely to develop cardiovascular disease if they have a boss who shows little willingness to accommodate employees' family needs, such as caring for a sick child or attending a parent-teacher conference.

-- People who work for bosses who are more flexible about where and when work gets done on average got 30 minutes more sleep per night than those who toiled for more restrictive bosses.

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-- Employees who experienced tension with a boss or another employee while at work reported being significantly less in touch with their children's activities and whereabouts that day.

While many of the findings may seem like common sense, researchers say this is one of the first attempts to document the health effects of workplaces that have been slow to accommodate new technologies, the latest business productivity strategies and evolving cultural values.

"A lot of companies have adopted flex-time or even tele-work policies, but then haven't changed their work practices to integrate flexibility," said Ellen Ernst Kossek of Michigan State University, one of the study researchers.

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Kossek says employees need more assurances from managers that taking advantage of flexibility programs won't put their job security at risk.

"With companies cutting training budgets, [supervisors] haven't been taught basic management skills. Worse, it's common for firms to reward supervisors for making their numbers, regardless of the human cost," she wrote in a Harvard Business Review report, co-authored by Leslie Hammer.

Creating More Flexible Workplaces Takes Time

According to the Families and Work Institute, nearly 80 percent of workers say they would like to have more flexible work options and would use them so long as there were no negative on-the-job consequences. But close to 40 percent surveyed believe they would be less likely to advance in their careers if they asked for flexibility.

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Kossek suggests those who seek more flexibility should work together to create an arrangement that would garner the approval of an inflexible boss.

"Part of [the solution] would be for a worker to talk with another co-worker and [develop] a suggestion about how the work is going to get done, like 'Mary and I are willing to trade off'...There's strength in numbers."

Erin Kelly of the University of Minnesota advises "not to internalize or personalize" the need for flexibility. "Put the broader picture in front of the manager and say, 'I'm one of the many people who is finding it difficult to do things the old way and here are some innovations I'd like to talk through with you,'" she said.

But researchers agree meaningful change will only occur once employers see the benefits for their bottom line and embrace a new culture.

The study found that workplaces with a more open and flexible culture saw a reduction in unnecessary work being done, increased employee supportiveness of the organization, and a 45 percent cut in job turnover.

According to the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, stress is the second-most disabling illness for workers after heart disease, and costs the nation over $300 billion per year in health care, missed work, and "stress reduction" efforts.

The research team plans to focus on ways to improve work-family conflict and employee retention in its second phase over the next 18 months.

The Work, Family and Health Network is funded by the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, National Institute on Aging, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.