Research Links Workplace Practices, Employee Health

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 15, 2009

Results from four studies unveiled during an Oct. 13, 2009, congressional briefing in Washington, D.C., underscore how change in the workplace environment can benefit employees’ health and organizations’ bottom lines.

Those changes can be as simple as managers showing interest in an employee’s personal life and applying policies creatively to an employee’s family needs, according to initial research findings released by the Work, Family & Health Network.

“Right now we really have to change in the U.S. how we structure work” and show managers how to do this, said Ellen Ernst Kossek, University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University (MSU).

That will require some discussion about how work is managed, noted Kossek, who teaches HR management and organizational behavior at MSU’s School of Labor and Industrial Relations and is the author of CEO of Me: Creating a Life that Works in the Flexible Job Age (Wharton School Publishing, 2007).

Kossek was among the researchers speaking at the network’s hour-long briefing.

The networkconsists of research teams from across the U.S. working with corporate partners in several industries. In addition to MSU, network researchers are from the University of Minnesota, Pennsylvania State University, Harvard University, Portland State University, Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research, RTI International and the University of Southern California.

The National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched the network in 2005 to study the effect of company policies on employee health.

The briefing hit the high points of four independent studies from the network’s research teams, including one by Kossek and co-researcher Leslie B. Hammer of Portland State.

They found that training supervisors to be supportive of employees’ family and personal lives led to higher job satisfaction and better physical health and that it reduced the likelihood of turnover among workers they studied at 12 groceries in Ohio and Michigan.

Training focused on providing emotional and structural support, modeling healthy behavior and working with other managers, Kossek and Hammer wrote in the November 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Emotional support might include acknowledging that employees sometimes have extensive outside responsibilities. Structural support could involve working with employees to avoid scheduling conflicts. Modeling healthy behavior could include sometimes attending important family functions during work hours. Working with other managers might involve interdepartmental cross training as a way to address work/life issues, according to the findings.

A video highlighting their study showed how a part-time employee was able to accept a full-time position when her supervisor took a creative approach to scheduling. The employee, who was required to start her shift at 5 a.m., was allowed to make a daily personal phone call to wake her children for school. Cross training another employee in the woman’s duties allowed the woman to leave for less than an hour to drive home to take her children to school.

Other studies the briefing touched on:

  • How managers’ practices related to work/family balance predict the cardiovascular risk and the sleep duration of nursing home employees, presented by Lisa Berkman, a professor of public policy, epidemiology and global health and population at the Harvard School of Public Health.
  • The work demands of employees at a 24/7 hotel and the implications on the well-being of their family members, presented by Susan McHale of the Penn State Hotel Work and Well-Being Study Team.
  • Results of the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), presented by Erin Kelly from the University of Minnesota’s Flexible Work & Well-Being Center.

The ROWE study of 658 employees looked at the effects of an experiment in culture change that Best Buy initiated at its headquarters. ROWE increased the control it gave to employees over work schedules. Under ROWE, employees don’t have to request permission to telecommute, for example, but do what is needed to get the work done, Kelly said.

The workplace impact: the odds of turnover fell by 45 percent, according to company data collected in the nine months after ROWE was instituted. Job satisfaction increased, presenteeism decreased significantly, and employees were less likely to be too busy to see the doctor when needed. Unnecessary work was reduced, and employee perception of the employer’s family supportiveness increased, according to Kelly.

Managers, she said, must be trained to manage “in a way that looks at the whole person … rather than when did you come in to work.”

Katie Corrigan, co-director of Workplace Flexibility 2010 at Georgetown Law, and Mary L. Durham, vice president of research for Kaiser Permanente and director of The Center for Health Research, moderated the briefing.

Related Articles:

Gap Outlet: Second Retailer Adopts Results-Only Work Environment Strategy, SHRM Organizational & Employee Development Discipline, Sept. 8, 2009

Report: Employee Partnership Lacking in Creating Flex Arrangements, HR News, Aug. 4, 2009

Survey: Telecommuting Improves Employee Health, Productivity, SHRM Benefits Discipline, Oct. 14, 2008

Workplace Flexibility Has 'Bottom-Line' Implications, HR News, May 13, 2008

Family Issues Top Reason for Taking ‘Mental Health’ Days, HR News, April1, 2008


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