Nov. 15, 2023 – Did the pandemic throw your work schedule upside down? If you now have any more flexibility in how and when you do your work, there’s good news: Researchers have found a compelling link between a flexible workplace and a reduced risk of diseases of your heart and blood vessels.
Epidemiologist Lisa Berkman, PhD, and a team of co-authors from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Penn State University found that workplaces that gave employees more autonomy, balance, and support positively influenced individual heart health.
The randomized study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, looked at data from 2009 to 2013 and groups of employees from two companies: an IT company with moderate- to high-salaried workers, and a long-term care facility with mostly female caregivers who earned low wages. (A randomized study uses two or more groups of people that are as similar as possible, except for the treatment they get.)
According to co-author Orfeu Buxton, PhD, a professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, the lessons from this study still hold up, perhaps even stronger after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Although we saw some benefits of flexibility in work since COVID, many employers are attempting to revert to prior ’time on task’ focused work or clocked hours rather than focusing on productive work, and adequate wages and health care appropriate for that productivity,” he said.
“Employers now face headwinds of high turnover and employee dissatisfaction that can reduce productivity. We hope to change the conversation on the culture of work, realizing that flexibility and treating employees with respect can lead to higher productivity and lower turnover too.”
Over the course of the study, researchers developed workplace programs that provided a healthy balance between work lives and personal lives, as well as a supportive work environment. As a result, employees at a higher risk of issues with their heart and blood vessels – especially the older ones – showed a decrease in their risk for heart disease.
Supervisors took part in online and in-person training sessions to give them the tools to encourage their employees to honor their personal and familial obligations, while still motivating work performance. There were also team meetings, during which workers and their bosses could, together, figure out ways to allow employees to have more control over their schedules and reduce “low-value” tasks.
The study shows just how significant work conditions are when it comes to understanding health outcomes.
“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,” Berkman, a professor of public policy and epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan, said in a news release.
“These findings could be particularly consequential for low- and middle-wage workers who traditionally have less control over their schedules and job demands and are subject to greater health inequities.”
But how do these findings hold up years after the data was collected – and after a pandemic?
San Francisco-based cardiologist Leila Haghighat, MD, said the study’s major limitations are that the data was collected a decade ago, and the methods were used at only two companies. Still, she said, the results “add to an important and growing body of research finding evidence that stress throughout our lives can detrimentally affect cardiovascular health.” But, she said, “replication in other work environments would be helpful to see.”