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Flexible working is good for your health

Study says it's choice and control that makes the difference

Flexible working tends to have positive health effects, according to a review of medical studies by researchers at the Cochrane Library.

A review of ten studies covering more than 16,000 people found that self-scheduling of shifts and gradual/partial retirement led to statistically significant improvements in either primary outcomes (including systolic blood pressure and heart rate; tiredness; mental health, sleep duration, sleep quality and alertness; self-rated health status) or secondary health outcomes (co-workers social support and sense of community.  No ill health effects were reported.

In one study, for example, police officers who were able to change their shift start times showed significant improvements in psychological wellbeing compared to police officers who started work at a fixed hour.

Flexitime was shown not to have significant effects on self reported physiological and psychological health outcomes. Similarly, when comparing individuals working overtime with those who did not the odds of ill health effects were not significantly higher in the intervention group at follow up.

The effects of contractual flexibility on self-reported health (with the exception of gradual/partial retirement, which when controlled by employees improved health outcomes) were either equivocal or negative.

According to the authors of the study, based at Durham University:

"The findings of this review tentatively suggest that flexible working interventions that increase worker control and choice (such as self-scheduling or gradual/partial retirement) are likely to have a positive effect on health outcomes.

In contrast, interventions that were motivated or dictated by organisational interests, such as fixed-term contract and involuntary part-time employment, found equivocal or negative health effects. Given the partial and methodologically limited evidence base these findings should be interpreted with caution."

The criteria for inclusion in the study were that they had to focus on a flexible working style, have a suitable study design with a follow-up period of at least six
months, and report on primary health outcomes using a validated instrument.  An initial 12,000 studies was narrowed down first to 214 for full review, then to 10 that completely met their criteria.  Excluded studies for example might not have a before and after study, or lack a control group, or focus on job satisfaction rather than health outcomes.

“Flexible working seems to be more beneficial for health and wellbeing where the individuals control their own work patterns, rather than where employers are in control,” said the review lead, Clare Bambra of the Wolfson Research Institute, Durham University in the UK.

“Given the limited evidence base, we wouldn’t want to make any hard and fast recommendations, but these findings certainly give employers and employees something to think about.”

Co-author Kerry Joyce, also based at the Institute, added:

“We need to know more about how the health effects of flexible working are experienced by different types of workers, for instance, comparing women to men, old to young and skilled to unskilled. This is important as some forms of flexible working might only be available to employees with higher status occupations and this may serve to increase existing differences in health between social groups.”



February 2010


Flexibility comment

Flexible working conditions and their effects on employee health and wellbeing (Review) by Joyce K, Pabayo R, Critchley JA, Bambra C, is a welcome addition to the knowledge base of flexible working.

The study tends to confirm judgements that many people have been making for some time about the benefits of flexible working.

It's not yet conclusive proof of the health benefits of flexible working.  The numbers of studies included, due to the rigour of the review, is small.

But the overall conclusion proposed by the authors is an instructive one.  It may not be flexible working itself, but how it is implemented and organised that may make the key difference.

A key driver for flexibility is the desire of individuals for greater autonomy in choosing the times and locations of their work.  This of course has to be balanced and aligned with business needs.  Where this can be achieved there can be positive outcomes all round.

We look forward to further studies of this kind, especially if they can include a wider range of flexible working patterns, such as home-based working.

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The study can be found on the Cochrane Library website.







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