Personal crises impacting employees can encompass more than individuals becoming sick or injured. Stressful and often unexpected responsibilities and worries include having to care for an elderly parent, ill child or newborn or supporting a newly unemployed or underemployed spouse. The result for the worker may be financial strain as well as a detrimental impact on mental and physical health (in some cases even triggering alcohol and drug abuse). For the employer, the employee’s problems may translate into absenteeism and reduced productivity.
Increasingly, however, HR leaders and managers are realizing that creating flexible work schedules can help employees in times of crisis – and it can also be a strategy that benefits both the workforce and the company, in general.
Academic researchers, business and labor leaders, and government and military officials gathered in Washington, DC, to discuss this topic at a Focus on Workplace Flexibility conference sponsored by the nonprofit Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, whose National Workplace Flexibility Initiative is a collaborative effort to make workplace flexibility a compelling national issue and a standard of the U.S. workplace.
As Douglas R. Conant, president and Chief Executive Officer of the Campbell Soup Company told attendees, “ You can’t win in the marketplace unless you win in the workplace. And you can’t win in the workplace until you deal with the whole person.”
Benefits of Flexible and Non-Traditional Work Schedules
A flexible work arrangement can be a formal or informal agreement that allows workers to vary when they begin and end their work day. Along with flexible hours, sometimes called “flex time”, employers may also incorporate telecommuting, compressed work weeks and changes in the total hours worked as initiatives to accommodate family and individual needs – needs which may vary from time to time due to personal challenges on the home front.
“In the past, the mindset we had as managers was that in order to be productive, you had to touch your desk every day,” Richard T. Clark, Chairman of the Board and CEO, Merck & Co., Inc., stated at the Focus on Workplace Flexibility conference. “I actually see better productivity in those who use flex time because they are dedicated to the company.”
Bottom line: thinking outside of the 9 to 5 box when it comes to work schedules can ease stress for employees and promote loyalty and productivity in the workplace. For example, Bon Secours Virginia Health System has incorporated a strategy to help part-time workers if their partners or spouses lose their jobs. The employees can request full-time work or an increase in hours so they qualify for benefits. Bon Secours human resources department has found this option to modify work schedules reduces stress and results in fewer personal sick days, too. It also boosts productivity.
A Win/Win Solution
According to Boston College’s Sloan Work and Family Research Network, research has shown flexible work arrangements benefit organizations in multiple ways:
- Links have been shown between satisfied employees, satisfied customers and higher shareholder value
- Flexible schedules provide a low or no cost alternative with a high return
- The approach positions a company as an “employer of choice”
- It responds to the 24/7 needs of a global economy
- Flexible work arrangements capitalize on new technologies that facilitate this type of work schedule
Several studies have shown that, for employees, the reduction in stress levels provided by work schedules that help them meet the demands of their personal as well as professional lives increases satisfaction and productivity. It also may result in benefits to their health – translating into lower healthcare costs.
Research published in the Cochrane Library’s Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews involved a systematic investigation of data from 10 previous studies that examined the health ramifications of flexible work conditions on 16,000 people.
The results? Flexible work schedules were associated with improvements in blood pressure, adequate sleep, heart rate, levels of fatigue and overall mental health. There were also secondary health benefits, such as a feeling of social support and a sense of community. The research team found no evidence of any negative effects associated with flexible work schedules.
“Flexible working initiatives which equip the worker with more choice or control, such as self-scheduling of work hours or gradual or phased retirement, are likely to have positive effects on health and well-being,” one of the lead researchers, Clare Bambra of Durham University in the U.K., said in a media statement. “Control at work is good for health.”
A study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine also concluded that flexible schedules at work may result in healthier employees. The study focused on the health habits of 3,000 workers and the type of work schedules they had. The employees who ranked their schedules as flexible enough to accommodate their personal life needs were more likely to exercise, eat healthy foods and get enough sleep when compared with their peers who worked in less flexible work situations.