Increasing workplace flexibility may lower employees’ risk of cardiovascular disease, according to a new study led by researchers from Penn State and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In workplaces that implemented interventions designed to reduce conflict between employees’ work and their personal lives, the researchers observed that employees at higher baseline cardiometabolic risk experienced a reduction in their risk for cardiovascular disease equivalent to the risk of a person between five and 10 years younger.
The study published today (Nov. 8) in The American Journal of Public Health. It is among the first major intervention studies to assess whether changes to the social work environment can affect cardiometabolic risk.
“By conducting this intervention, we were able to study how structural changes to the culture of work enabled employees to have less conflict between work and their personal lives,” said co-lead author Orfeu Buxton, professor of biobehavioral health and director of the Sleep, Health & Society Collaboratory at Penn State. “The exciting thing is that it actually worked. We found that the intervention led to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, especially for employees whose baseline risk was higher.”
The researchers designed a workplace intervention meant to increase work-life balance: Supervisors were trained on strategies to show support for employees’ personal and family lives alongside their job performances, and teams comprising both supervisors and employees attended hands-on trainings to identify new ways to increase employees’ control over their schedules and tasks.
The researchers randomly assigned the intervention within two companies: an IT company, composed of 555 participating employees, and a long-term care company with 973 participating employees. The IT employees consisted of male and female high- and moderate-salaried technical workers; the long-term care employees mostly consisted of female, low-wage direct caregivers. Other units/sites were not assigned the intervention and therefore conducted their business as usual.
These 1,528 employees across the experimental and control groups had their systolic blood pressure, body mass index, glycated hemoglobin, smoking status, HDL cholesterol and total cholesterol recorded at the beginning of the study and again 12 months later. The researchers used this health information to calculate a cardiometabolic risk score (CRS) for each employee, with a higher score indicating a higher estimated risk of developing cardiovascular disease within the decade.
The study found that the workplace intervention did not have any significant overall effects on employees’ CRS. However, the researchers did observe CRS reductions specifically among those with a higher baseline CRS: Those employees of the IT company and of the long-term care company had a CRS reduction equivalent to a person 5.5 and 10.3 years younger, respectively. Age also played a role, as employees older than 45 with a higher baseline CRS were more likely to see a reduction than their younger counterparts.
“The intervention was designed to change the culture of the workplace over time with the intention of reducing conflict between employees’ work and personal lives and ultimately improving their health,” said Buxton, who is also an SSRI cofunded faculty member. “Now we know such changes can improve employee health and should be more broadly implemented.”
According to co-lead author Lisa Berkman, professor of public policy and epidemiology and director of the Center for Population and Development Studies at Harvard Chan School, the study illustrates how working conditions are important social determinants of health.
“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 said. “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.”
Other Penn State authors on the paper include Soomi Lee and Laura Klein. Other authors include Erin Kelly, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Leslie Hammer and Miguel Marino, Oregon Health & Science University; Frank Mierzwa, RTI International; Todd Bodner, Portland State University; Tay McNamara, Brandeis University; Hayami Koga, Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health; Thomas McDade, Northwestern University; Ginger Hanson, Johns Hopkins School of Nursing; and Phyllis Moen, University of Minnesota.
Funding for the study came from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additional funding came from the University of Minnesota’s College of Liberal Arts, McKnight Foundation, William T. Grant Foundation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the Administration for Children and Families.