Study: Workplace Flexibility Promotes Employees’ Mental Health

Researchers at the University of Minnesota recently assessed the effect of a workplace flexibility program on workers’ job satisfaction, perceived stress, psychological distress and burnout.

“We found that the initiative did improve the mental health of employees a full year later, and this was true for both men and women in terms of job satisfaction and burnout. However, women especially benefited through reduced stress and reduced psychological distress,” Phyllis Moen, PhD, professor of sociology and lead author of the study, told O&P News.

Team impact

The study’s purpose was to determine whether a deliberate change in the work environment would reduce work/family conflicts and promote workers’ health. It followed several pretests by the Work, Family and Health Network, and was funded by the NIH and the CDC.

Moen and colleagues conducted a 12-month randomized field trial of 867 information technology (IT) workers in a Fortune 500 company. The investigators assessed whether the Support, Transform, Achieve, Results (STAR) initiative, which gave employees greater control over when and where they worked and encouraged supervisors to support the family and personal lives of their team members, improved employees’ well-being. Team members figured out how they could achieve their goals and meet deadlines while giving maximum autonomy to all team members as to where and when they work.

Phyllis Moen, PhD
Phyllis Moen

“It was not [about] individuals being given this control over time and place of work so much as teams being given the ability to promote the flexibility of their team members with their supervisors being supportive,” Moen said.

According to Moen, workplace flexibility typically means the individual employee has to ask the supervisor for permission to work from home or to arrive late for personal reasons, such as taking children to school.

“This [STAR initiative] was not having to ask the supervisor,” she said. “STAR focused on the way we work as members of teams. So people can work differently and they can be at work or at home or wherever as long as the deadlines are met and the quality of the results is excellent.”

She said offices are no longer working with 1950s technology. Therefore, there is no need for employees to be tethered to their desks, offices or cubicles. Employees have the ability to work differently, but many offices allow “1950s” clocks and calendars to define where and when work is accomplished.

Increased autonomy

Moen said flexibility in the workplace would work well for O&P offices and other small health care offices.

“Any time you give people more control of their lives, it is better,” she said. “The thing that makes most people [feel] stress is time. They are expected to work smart and work in an intensive way on the job, with no recognition that they also have other responsibilities, interests or goals.”

She noted the kind of flexibility and autonomy redesign characterizing STAR works for people of all life stages and ages; it is not just for working parents. Giving people more control over their time makes employees more invested in completing work tasks. She said with more control, they feel they are being treated as adults.

Results from the study showed the STAR initiative increased job satisfaction, decreased burnout and reduced perceived stress and psychological distress during a period of 12 months. Moen said the initiative also reduced family-to-work conflict and increased workers’ sense of schedule control.

She said flexibility in the workplace may not apply to all jobs; but some forms of it — such as greater predictability of schedules — should be possible in any kind of work. According to Moen, the study shows it works well for well-trained, skilled professionals, and offers evidence that employers and managers can redesign the way work is done.


Another goal of the STAR initiative was to get rid of low value work, such as unnecessary meetings, or unnecessary forms to complete.

Moen also stressed the importance of anticipating and planning for busier times in the workplace. Facility owners should be able to determine what time of week, month or year will be busiest and make sure they have the number of workers needed during that time.

Future plans

Moen and her colleagues would like to try the STAR initiative in other settings, such as smaller offices.

Moen said people sometimes think workplace flexibility programs like STAR are meant to allow individuals to work whenever they want. Instead, she said it is about teamwork and deciding how everyone within the team can have more autonomy, complete work tasks, meet deadlines and excel at their objectives.

“This is the wave of the future,” Moen said. “We are going to see more of this because people cannot keep up with the pace they are working now and this rigid work style. They are going to burn out. [Increased flexibility] will reduce turnover, too.” – by Monica Jaramillo

Disclosure: Moen reports the study received research support from the NIH and the CDC.

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