Workplace Flexibility Improves Well-Being, Might Reduce Health Costs

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Nov 11, 2011

Workplace flexibility policies can improve total employee well-being, and that could lead to a healthier workforce, according to Dr. K. Andrew Crighton, vice president and chief medical officer at Prudential Financial in Newark, N.J., and Maureen A. Corcoran, vice president for health, life and inclusion at Prudential.

The pair addressed HR professionals gathered in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 9, 2011, for the Work-Life Focus: 2012 and Beyond conference sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Families and Work Institute.

While hard data is only now being collected and analyzed, the intersection between workplace flexibility and improved employee health is an area full of possibilities, according to the speakers. "The definition of health has broadened considerably to include physical, emotional, financial, familial and spiritual well-being," Crighton said. And that directly ties employee health to flexible workplace policies.

"The evolution of work/life and health and wellness as a joint endeavor has changed the landscape," Corcoran said. "Understanding the population now focuses on broader health and risk data that considers traditional demographics as well as life stage and social factors."

Stress is a key factor impairing health, Corcoran noted, along with obesity and depression. All three are likely to increase when employees' well-being is diminished by poor work/life integration.

Stress, obesity and depression are likely to increase
when employees' well-being is diminished
by poor work/life integration.

Time Off for Wellness

At a basic level, flexible policies permit workers greater opportunities to take time off for wellness services, such as disease screenings and physician visits, Corcoran added. For example, Prudential's workforce data shows that in 2010 its call center employees had higher health risk scores and incurred 21 percent more outpatient emergency room visits, with 3 percent fewer medical office visits, than other employees. In addition, call center employees and their dependents used the emergency room 10 percent more than did other families.

"Emergency rooms are open outside call center hours, and doctors' offices aren't," Corcoran noted as a possible explanation.

Moreover, the call center employees had 22 percent higher use of mental health and substance abuse services than non-call center employees, pointing to the effects of high-stress work that has not traditionally been accommodating to flexibility initiatives.

Digging Under the Data

Corcoran and Crighton urged employers to begin tracking aggregate health claims data to find links between workplace flexibility (or the lack thereof) and higher health claims. "Dig under the medical data and look at life circumstances," Crighton advised.

Next, translate data into usable information, showing how health-related behaviors could be improved—and what policy changes would promote these improvements, such as improved access to wellness services.

Finally, take the message to employees and their managers. "The information has to be translated into an understandable story that resonates with people," Crighton said.

The speakers encouraged organizationwide efforts to promote employee well-being, noting that at Prudential budget-coaching opportunities and stress-handling webinars have been well-received. Educating managers is key, and providing them with scripts showing how to respond to requests for greater flexibility has been an effective technique.

In terms of improving health and well-being, culture, communications and incentives are the three big areas to target, Crighton pointed out. "But the biggest bang for the buck is from the first two—changing the culture and improving employee communications," he noted.

No matter what may be done to improve employee well-being, he advised, "if it flies in the face of your corporate culture, it will fall flat."

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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