In a recent study led by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Penn State University, revealed the transformative impact of workplace flexibility on cardiovascular health. The study showcased how interventions promoting work-life balance not only reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease but also contributed to a more youthful heart. It is among the first studies to assess whether workplace flexibility improves heart health and reduce cardiometabolic risk.
Understanding Cardiometabolic Risk
Cardiometabolic risk is a measure of an individual’s lifetime risk of developing cardiovascular disease. The researchers calculated a validated cardiometabolic risk score (CRS) based on various health indicators, including resting blood pressure, glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c), high-density lipoprotein (HDL) and total cholesterol, body mass index (BMI), and tobacco consumption. The study commenced with an initial assessment and followed up one year later to gauge changes in cardiometabolic risk.
The researchers implemented interventions within an IT company and a long-term care company, comprising 555 and 973 participating employees, respectively. Participants were divided into two randomized groups. One group received a targeted intervention, where supervisors were trained to support employees’ personal and family lives in addition to their work performance. Supervisors and workers in this group also received time management training. The other group continued their routines as business as usual.
While overall cardiometabolic risk scores did not change significantly, there was a notable reduction among employees with higher baseline risk scores. Age emerges as a crucial factor in the equation. Older employees, especially those above 45, stand to gain the most from workplace interventions. Employees in the IT and long-term care companies experienced a drop in risk scores equivalent to five and 10 years, respectively. The study emphasizes that age is a crucial factor. Individuals older than 45 and with high initial risk scores were the most likely to benefit from the intervention.
The findings also carry particular weight for low- and middle-wage workers. These workers often have limited control over their schedules and face greater health inequities. Berkman highlights the potential consequences of reducing cardiovascular risk for this demographic, noting the positive implications for both the health and productivity of traditionally underserved workers.
Co-lead author Lisa Berkman, Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy and of Epidemiology at Harvard Chan School and director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies explained, “When stressful workplace conditions and work-family conflict were mitigated, we saw a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease among more vulnerable employees, without any negative impact on their productivity. 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”.
Implications for Employee Health
These findings underscore the potential of workplace interventions in promoting cardiovascular health. Additionally, it emphasizes the need for tailored strategies that consider individual baseline health risks and age. Adopting measures to increase flexibility and support, employers can contribute to the long-term cardiovascular health of their employees.
“The intervention was designed to change the culture of the workplace over time with the intention of reducing conflict between employees’ work and personal lives and ultimately improving their health,” said co-lead author Orfeu Buxton, professor of biobehavioral health and director of the Sleep, Health & Society Collaboratory at Penn State. “Now we know such changes can improve employee health and should be more broadly implemented.”
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