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Annie Toro

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A Flexible Workplace Is a Happier, Healthier Workplace

Posted: 11/02/09 11:26 AM ET

As National Work and Family Month and Mental Health Awareness Month draw to a close, it's a good time to reflect on the impact of flexible work arrangements on the health and well-being of employees and their families.

Years of psychological research provide a strong foundation for flexible work arrangements, demonstrating the benefit to employees' physical and mental health, as well as their family life. To promote this knowledge, the American Psychological Association created an Office on Work, Stress and Health that promotes research, training, practice and policy addressing these matters, including:

a) Promoting understanding of work stress and its impact on the well-being and productivity of workers;

b) Exploring organizational and behavioral interventions to reduce stress, illness and injury in the workplace;

c) Studying the impact of changing work force demographics (e.g., aging workers, increasing proportions of ethnic and racial minorities and women) on health and safety in the workplace; and

d) Building collaborative partnerships among psychology, industry, labor and federal agencies to reduce stress and health and safety risks in the workplace.

For APA, issues impacting work, stress and health are of utmost priority. Our dedication to furthering initiatives that lead to a healthy workplace environment stems from our association's mission to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives.

These issues are particularly important under the sustained pressures of global competition on the U.S. work force. Psychologists are uniquely trained to address the behavioral aspects of change faced by our work force.

Research provides us with essential information regarding changes in our society that speak to the critical need to prioritize workplace flexibility. However, public policy has not kept up with the realities of working families. Today's families are more likely to include single parents, unmarried couples, same-sex couples -- sometimes with children, and stepchildren.

One of the most striking changes in U.S. families in the past 30 years is the increasing number of working women and the rate of mothers who work, especially mothers of infants and young children. Recently, California first lady Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress released a provocative report entitled "The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Changes Everything" on the status of women in the United States and the drastic changes that have taken place in our country as a result of women's entrance into the work force. The study is aimed at inciting what it calls "a national conversation about what women's economic power means for our way of life."

Research tells us there is a positive connection between workplace flexibility and an individual's work-life balance. For instance, employees who work in environments that provide flexible work hours also tend to experience fewer conflicts within their work, family and personal lives. However, when a workplace does not provide adequate flexibility, women are more likely than men to experience work-family conflicts and health-related distress, some studies show.

Another key factor is employee perception of workplace culture. Many employees do not use such policies, even when they are available, because they are concerned that taking advantage of parental leave or flexible work schedules, for example, may be perceived as a lack of job commitment and could negatively affect their career advancement. Thus, it is imperative that employers not only support the employees by promoting their company's flexible schedule options, but also create and maintain a culture that encourages use of these policies.

Research shows that employers benefit from offering greater workplace flexibility. When employees receive the flexibility they need, there is less absenteeism and greater job satisfaction. Employees are more motivated to adopt healthier behaviors, sleep better and be involved in employer-promoted health education programs. Additionally, employers have lower health care utilization costs.

Given the interest in issues affecting working families demonstrated by the Obama administration through the development of initiatives such as the White House Middle Class Task Force and the first lady's efforts to bring much-needed attention to issues involving work-family balance, we hope to see the development of sound federal policies and initiatives that will lead to positive outcomes for employees, employers, families and our country as a whole.