Employees over the age of 45 with a higher baseline cardiometabolic risk were more likely to see their risk reduced by the introduction of some flexibility at work. Image: Shutterstock
From satisfaction and inclusivity to improved work-life balance, flexibility at work has many benefits. But until now, these benefits have never been correlated with health. This is now the case, as a study reveals that greater workplace flexibility could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in certain employees.
A team of researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Pennsylvania State University conducted a workplace experiment with 1,528 employees with the aim of improving their work-life balance. Leaders were trained in strategies to encourage this balance in their employees, and all teams—managers and employees alike—also took part in practical training to identify new ways of increasing employee autonomy. The intervention ultimately encouraged flexibility in the workplace, an organizational style that became increasingly widespread during the pandemic.
Published in the American Journal of Public Health, the research was carried out at the sites of two companies: an IT company, with 555 employees taking part, and a long-term care facility, with 973 participating employees. To carry out their research, the scientists measured systolic blood pressure, body mass index, glycated hemoglobin, smoking habits, HDL cholesterol and total cholesterol for all participants at the start of the study, and again 12 months later. These markers enabled them to determine each employee's risk of developing cardiovascular disease within a decade. This was achieved by calculating a so-called cardiometabolic risk score.
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Reduced risk for certain workers
At the end of their experiment, the researchers found that flexibility at work reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease in certain employees—not all, but mainly those with a higher baseline cardiometabolic risk, as well as older workers. "The study illustrates how working conditions are important social determinants of health," says the study's co-lead author, Lisa Berkman, a professor of public policy and of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, quoted in a statement. "When stressful workplace conditions and work-family conflict were mitigated, we saw a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease among more vulnerable employees, without any negative impact on their productivity."
According to the researchers' findings, the program did not actually have a significant effect on the cardiometabolic risk score of all employees. It did, however, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease in those at higher risk at the start of the study. "Those employees ... saw a reduction in their cardiometabolic risk score equivalent to 5.5 and 10.3 years of age-related changes, respectively," reads the study news release. Note that workers older than 45 with a higher baseline cardiometabolic risk score were more likely to see a reduction than their younger counterparts.
"Now we know such changes can improve employee health and should be more broadly implemented," concludes study co-lead author, Orfeu Buxton,