A more thoughtful, flexible workplace to reduce stress and improve work-life balance could lower the risk of cardiovascular disease for employees without losing productivity. And the benefits accrue most to older workers and those who already have a higher cardiometabolic risk.

That’s from a new study led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Penn State University that found flexibility at work reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease by the equivalent of as much as 10 years of age-related cardiometabolic change in those who were most vulnerable. The study was published this week in the American Journal of Public Health.

Cardiometabolic risk is one’s lifetime risk of developing cardiovascular disease.

“This study illustrates how working conditions are important social determinants of health,” said co-lead author Lisa Berkman, a professor of public policy and epidemiology at Harvard and director of Harvard’s Center for Population and Development Studies, in a written statement.

She said that when workplace stresses and work-family conflict were reduced, vulnerable employees had less risk of heart disease — with no negative impact on how well they do their jobs. “These findings could be particularly consequential for low- and middle-wage workers who traditionally have less control over their schedules and job demands and are subject to greater health inequities,” said Berkman.

About the study

The researchers trained supervisors on strategies to visibly support employees’ personal and family lives alongside their job performances. Some supervisors and employees also took hands-on training to figure out ways to increase employee control over their schedules and tasks.

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Per the news release, “The researchers randomly assigned the intervention to work units and sites within an IT company, comprised of 555 participating employees, and a long-term care company, with 973 participating employees. The IT employees consisted of male and female high- and moderate-salaried technical workers; the long-term care employees mostly consisted of female, low-wage direct caregivers. Other units and sites were not assigned the intervention and therefore conducted their business as usual.”

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At the start of the study and again after 12 months, all 1,528 employees in the research had blood pressure, body mass index, HDL cholesterol, smoking status, glycated hemoglobin and total cholesterol checked. That provided the information used to calculate cardiometabolic risk scores.

Overall, risk scores didn’t change with the intervention. But they did drop among those who had higher baseline risk scores. Employees of the IT company and long-term care company say their risk scores drop the equivalent of five and 10 years, respectively.

The researchers said that age mattered and those older than 45 with high initial risk scores were most apt to see a reduction.

The hope is that workplace culture will change to embrace more work-life balance and support for employees’ personal lives, too, which will improve health, said co-lead author Orfeu Buxton, professor of biobehavioral health and director of the Sleep, Health & Society Collaboratory at Penn State.

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