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Research Highlights

Can workplace flexibility and supervisor support reduce health risks?

While a workplace intervention designed to reduce health risks did not help everyone in a randomized controlled trial, older adults and those already at risk did experience benefits. The findings were consistent among participants in two different industries: information technology and long-term care. The NIH-funded study tested whether increased workplace flexibility and supervisor support would reduce risk factors for heart disease or diabetes. The results were published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Chalk sketch of scale with stickies reading WORK and LIFE on either side with BALANCE centered above

People spend a large fraction of their lives in the workplace, yet there have been relatively few studies examining the influence of changes in workplace practices on health. With the prevalence of family-friendly policies increasing in U.S. workplaces, NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention convened an interdisciplinary team of researchers to form the Work, Family & Health Network. To better understand how workplace practices and policies affect work, family life, and health outcomes, the team conducted the Work, Family & Health Study, a multisite, randomized controlled trial.

The study intervention lasted 12 weeks and included supervisor training focused on increasing supportive work-family behaviors and ways to modify practices and interactions between employees and their supervisors. It also included employee and manager training to identify new work practices to increase employees’ control over work time and to help reduce low-value tasks. Trainings were based on STAR (Support.Transform.Achieve.Results.) toolkits, which include face-to-face and role-playing session guidance as well as materials and scripts for activities to reinforce the sessions.

The intervention did not have a significant effect on either of the two industry groups as a whole. However, the researchers also looked at subgroups of workers in the study. Those results showed that participants with higher baseline risk, particularly older workers, experienced significant risk reductions. Risk was calculated by looking at biomarkers such as blood pressure, body mass index, tobacco use, and cholesterol. The study found consistent results across two very different types of workplaces and the intervention appeared easy to implement.

Companies that are interested in making changes to promote employee wellness while benefiting their business at the same time can download research-based Toolkits to Achieve Workplace Change. Researchers can access Public-Use Data from the Work, Family & Health Study.

This research was supported in part by NIH grants U01HD051217, U01HD051218, U01HD051256, U01HD051276, U01AG027669, U01OH008788, U01HD059773, and R01HL107240.

Reference: Berkman LF, et al. Employee cardiometabolic risk following a cluster-randomized workplace intervention from the Work, Family and Health Network, 2009-2013. American Journal of Public Health. 2023. Epub Nov. 8. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2023.307413.

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