"The groundwork of all happiness is health." - Leigh Hunt

Flexibility at work reduces the danger of heart problems

November 15, 2023 – Has the pandemic upended your work schedule? If you now have more flexibility in how and if you do your work, there's excellent news: Researchers have found a compelling link between a versatile 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 TH 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 within the American Journal of Public Health, examined data from 2009 to 2013 and worker groups from two firms: an IT company with staff earning medium to high salaries and a long-term care facility with predominantly female caregivers who earned low wages. (A randomized trial uses two or more groups of people who find themselves as similar as possible apart from the treatment they receive.)

According to co-author Orfeu Buxton, PhD, professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, the teachings from this study are still valid, even perhaps more so after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although we have seen some benefits of work flexibility since COVID, many employers are trying to return to previous task-focused work or paced work schedules rather than focusing on productive work and decent wages and health care commensurate with that productivity,” he said.

“Employers now face the headwinds of high turnover and employee dissatisfaction, which can reduce productivity. We hope to change the conversation about work culture by recognizing that flexibility and respectful treatment of employees can also lead to higher productivity and lower turnover.”

Over the course of the study, researchers developed workplace programs that ensured a healthy work-life balance and a supportive work environment. This led to a discount in the danger of heart disease amongst employees with a better risk of heart and vascular problems – especially older employees.

Supervisors participated in online and in-person training to offer them the tools to encourage employees to satisfy their personal and family responsibilities while motivating work performance. There were also team meetings where staff and their supervisors could work together to search out ways to offer employees more control over their schedules and reduce “low-value” tasks.

The study shows how vital working conditions are for understanding health consequences.

“As stressful working conditions and work-family conflicts were mitigated, we saw a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease among more vulnerable employees without negatively impacting their productivity,” said Berkman, a professor of public policy and epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan, said in a Press release.

“These findings could be particularly consequential for low- and middle-wage workers, who traditionally have less control over their schedules and work demands and face greater health disparities.”

But how do these findings delay years after data collection – and after a pandemic?

San Francisco-based cardiologist Leila Haghighat, MD, said the study's biggest limitations are that the information was collected a decade ago and the methods have only been used at two firms. Still, she said, “the results add to an important and growing body of research that provides evidence that stress throughout our lives can affect cardiovascular health.” However, she said, “it would be helpful to see replication.” seen in other work environments.”