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Reduce Stress! Sell Your Boss on the Value of Flex Time

 MoMo Productions/Getty Images
MoMo Productions/Getty Images,

by Sarah Mahoney

Work
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While plenty of research proves that people with more control over their work schedule are more productive, a new study from the University of Minnesota provides some of the best evidence yet that flexibility decreases burnout, can provide stress relief and actually make people happier.

The researchers created a work flexibility program for IT workers at a Fortune 500 company, the first time a randomized controlled trial of its kind has been put into place at a U.S. firm. The experiment lasted 12 months, with workers divided into two groups. One was given special training in techniques meant to increase their level of control, including shifting schedules and working from home. The goal of each technique was to increase productivity. The second group followed the company’s usual practices.

While researchers expected the group with more control to do better, “I was surprised to see positive results on all outcomes,” says Phyllis Moen, Ph.D., a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota and lead author. They reported lower levels of stress and said they had more time to spend with their families.

She says the research differed by measuring flex decisions made by employees looking to increase their productive time at work and minimize their low-value tasks. For example, they got coaching to help them decide which meetings wasted their time, how to use Instant Messaging more effectively, or learning to free up their schedules to accommodate the crunch time related to software releases. That’s very different than the usual form of flexibility, which focuses on exceptions to the rule, like asking your supervisor if you can start work late to take a child to school, or work at home Monday to let the refrigerator repairman in.

The average age of the participants was 46, and while researchers found no difference by age or family stage, there were a few gender differences, with women in the high-control group being “especially likely to report lower levels of stress.”

Companies are slow in recognizing that this type of autonomy only increases employees’ commitment to the firm and to their work obligations. It’s a win/win.

While researchers expected the group with more control to do better, “I was surprised to see positive results on all outcomes,” says Phyllis Moen, Ph.D., a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota and lead author. They reported lower levels of stress and said they had more time to spend with their families. 

She says the research differed by measuring flex decisions made by employees looking to increase their productive time at work and minimize their low-value tasks. For example, they got coaching to help them decide which meetings wasted their time, how to use Instant Messaging more effectively, or learning to free up their schedules to accommodate the crunch time related to software releases. That’s very different than the usual form of flexibility, which focuses on exceptions to the rule, like asking your supervisor if you can start work late to take a child to school, or work at home Monday to let the refrigerator repairman in.

The average age of the participants was 46, and while researchers found no difference by age or family stage, there were a few gender differences, with women in the high-control group being “especially likely to report lower levels of stress.”

Before you say, “that would never work at my company” or “the higher-ups would never agree to this,” Moen says it’s worth asking. “Companies are slow in recognizing that this type of autonomy only increases employees’ commitment to the firm and to their work obligations. It’s a win/win.”

She says it can—and does—work in many organizations, including those that involve things like retail and direct care. “Even if it just means giving workers greater control and predictability over their hours, and the chance to change hours when needed,” she says, “they can benefit.”

The sticking point is that “we are surrounded by clocks and calendars of work developed in the middle of the last century, for very different types of work and a very different workforce.” 

Start out with a trial period, Moen suggests, scaled in ways that suit your office. “It doesn't have to be all or nothing. Maybe your team does need face-to-face meetings twice a week, but that leaves three additional days that can be more flexible.”

Finally, she points out that in times when managers can't offer raises and other benefits are being scaled back, “control over where and when one works is a perk everyone would appreciate.” Trust us, you will enjoy the stress relief.