By Melissa J. Anderson

According to a recent study by researchers from the University of Minnesota and the University of Delaware, institutionalized flexible work environments can help employees reduce stress, sleep more, and stay healthier.

The research, performed in 2010, followed almost 700 white collar Best Buy employees at the company’s corporate headquarters. About half of the employees participated in a ROWE (Results Oriented Work Environment) and the other half did not.

The study, “Changing Work, Changing Health: Can Real Work-Time Flexibility Promote Health Behaviors and Well-Being?” showed that ROWE employees were healthier and happier. The researchers write:

“To summarize, ROWE facilitates employees’ health-related behaviors (more sleep, more exercise, greater likelihood of going to the doctor when sick, and less likelihood of working when sick). These direct effects of ROWE are, as theorized, mediated by changes in schedule control and negative work-home spillover. On the other hand, ROWE does not directly influence employees’ subjective measures of well-being, although it indirectly influences these outcomes by increasing employees’ sense of schedule control and their ability to manage work and home life, changes that do improve well-being measures.”

By empowering employees to work when and where they needed, the company improved its employees’ health, work-life integration, and well-being.

Results Oriented Work Environments

The researchers, Phyllis Moen, Erin L. Kelly, Eric Tranby, and Qinlei Huang, believe much workplace dissatisfaction is a result of arbitrary time constraints that leave employees feeling powerless, which can negatively influence health. They explain:

“Corporate policies and practices offering employees greater schedule control, that is, the ability to decide when and where they do their jobs, may be especially important for the health behavior and well-being of contemporary employees, given the increasing time pressures, time speedups, and time conflicts most are experiencing.”

Additionally, they suggest that traditional work structures also force employees to forgo sleep and exercise time, both of which influence health. Stress caused by work-life conflict can also negatively impact health. By enabling individuals to better fit sleep and exercise into their schedules, as well as manage work-life demands more appropriately, ROWE workplaces keep employees healthier.

This effect is stronger for women, they say, which illustrates the gender imbalanced nature of housework and child care – even for dual career couples, with our without children. They write, “However, the suggestive evidence is that women (with and without children at home) participating in ROWE experience greater changes in sleep and exercise than do fathers (see Table S-5; Maume et al. 2009).”

Women tend to have more to manage outside the office, and having more power over work schedules and locations can help them manage these additional responsibilities.

Effects of Control and Self Empowerment

The researchers believe that a key component of the ROWE structure is that it gives employees freedom to set their own schedules without having to ask permission first, as they would with a traditional flex arrangement. Providing flexibility is considered a “perk” or “favor” to the employee, and utilizing the perk makes the employee feel that they are disadvantaged in negotiating workplace structures.

They explain:

“A major contribution of studying a corporate innovation is that it points to the potential power of organizational change as a way of promoting employee wellness, particularly in terms of prevention behaviors. Many flexibility policies are offered to help individuals on a selective basis with ‘their’ problems (Kelly and Moen 2007).”

They continue:

“What our evidence underscores is the importance of organizational-level changes promoting real flexibility in terms of employees’ control over the time and timing of their work, not individual adaptations and accommodations that leave existing work-time arrangements intact (Heaney 2003). This is a key point. ROWE differs from more common flexible work arrangements in that flexibility becomes the standard way of working, not an exception granted by a supervisor.”

When ROWE is the standard, employees feel empowered to make their own choices, and as a result, are healthier and happier.