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Can a Flexible and Supportive Boss Make You a Healthier Employee?  

by Stephany Schings, Communications Specialist 


SIOP Members Present Work-Family Conflict Research at Congressional Briefing

A flexible workplace would probably seem like just a nice job perk to many people, but research conducted by SIOP members Leslie B. Hammer and Ellen Ernst Kossek shows that it can actually make employees, their families, and their workplaces healthier.

Hammer, a professor of psychology and director of the Occupational Health Psychology program at Portland State University, and Kossek, a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University who teaches HR management and organizational behavior at MSU’s School of Labor and Industrial Relations, say changes in workplace flexibility and improved supervisor support for family, such as managers showing interest in an employee’s personal life or caring about an employee’s family needs, can benefit all parties involved.

Over the last 4 years, the two have conducted research on the intersection of workplace environments and the health of organizations’ employees and their families, as well as researched how changes in workplace practices can improve the health of employees, families, and organizations.

“There is a healthcare debate going on right now in America, and that is important, but we should also be looking at ways flexible workplaces can benefit work and the family and their health as well,” Kossek explained.

Through their research, Hammer and Kossek have found that a flexible and supportive boss can lead to healthier employees.

They presented their findings  October 13 in Washington, DC, at a congressional briefing co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, titled “Workplace Practice, Health and Well-Being: Initial Research Findings from the Work, Family & Health Network.” The briefing discussed the findings of four independent studies carried out by the The Work, Family and Health Network’s research teams, which includes Hammer and Kossek.

The Work, Family and Health Network consists of a group of interdisciplinary research teams working with corporate partners in several industries. Network researchers come from eight institutions: Michigan State University, University of Minnesota, Pennsylvania State University, Harvard University, Portland State University, Kaiser Permanente’s Center for Health Research, RTI International, and the University of Southern California.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched the Network in 2005 to study the effects of company policies on employee health.  NIH and CDC funded the Network’s Phase I research, which took place from 2005-2008.  Hammer and Kossek are now beginning Phase II of their research, which will continue through 2013. This second phase for the Network is again funded by the  CDC and NIH (NICHD and NIA).

Phase I of their research was an intervention study that focused on training managers on how to engage in family supportive supervisor behaviors (FSSB) in 12 grocery stores in Ohio and Michigan. Hammer and Kossek trained half of the managers at the stores in FSSB and work flexibility, focusing on how to provide emotional and structural support, model healthy behavior, and work with other managers.

Structural support includes taking the time to work with employees to reduce scheduling conflicts between work and family obligations. Emotional support includes such actions as acknowledging employees’ responsibilities outside of the workplace and understanding the conflicts that can arise, Kossek explained.

“Emotional support is important,” Kossek said. “In some of the stores we studied in Phase I, managers weren’t even saying ‘hello’ to their employees. Managers have to be creative to make it win-win and to think about how worker flexibility can help the workers and also the health of the organization.”

In Phase I, Hammer and Kossek found that employees working with managers trained in supporting a flexible workplace were healthier and more satisfied with their jobs.
“We found that whether your manager was trained or not was significantly linked to reports of major pain and bouts of depression,” Kossek explained. “We were one of four groups (in the Network) who studied this link. In all four of these studies we found some link between how supportive the management is or how flexible the workplace is and health.”

The formal findings are that the intervention in Phase I improved employees’ reports of physical health, job satisfaction, and reduced turnover, and that the effects of the intervention were more significant in people who were high in family to work conflict, Hammer explained.

These initial findings have since been reported in Harvard Business Review and Journal of Management, Hammer added.

The second phase of Hammer and Kossek’s research will focus on increasing management support (i.e., FSSB) and worker training in flexible work environments in the telecommunications and healthcare industries. This training will be implemented over a 4-month period, and the study will last until 2013 with baseline, 6-, 12-, and 18-month follow-ups of survey data and objective health data outcomes.

“What’s really unique about this is that we are using a very sound experimental design where we are first developing the intervention and then we are implementing it in 15 intervention sites and 15 control sites in each industry,” Hammer explained. “The overall intervention is aimed at increasing supervisor support for families and also works to increase worker control over work time.”

This “control over work time” means more than just flexible work schedules, Hammer added.

“It is more broadly about increasing employees’ control about where they work,” she said. “And how they work and when they work.”

In this next phase, Hammer and Kossek said they are delineating four different types of supervisor supportive behaviors and training managers on how to be supportive. The two are then allowing managers to practice those behaviors to build an awareness of how to support flexibility in the workplace.

“The key idea is that a lot of worker control over flexibility is not used,” Kossek said. “While programs are needed, in our research we focus on how managers on the ground actually allow access to flexibility. Some grocery stores we looked at in Phase I, for example, may not have an actual program, but on the ground, the managers and the employees may work to try to make flexibility happen, whereas some businesses that have official flexibility programs aren’t helping employees use them. Formal programs are important, but some companies can adopt these and not actually allow access to them.”

Hammer and Kossek said they are hoping to also affect change in workplace culture toward flexibility.

 “It’s key for managers to understand the value of providing family supportive supervisor behaviors,” Hammer explained. “There is so much research that shows that supervisor support is important, that supervisor support is related to work-family conflict, but none of the research shows how managers and employees can actually accomplish that.”

Hammer said the second phase will have a large scope.

“What’s so interesting about the second phase of this study is that it is a large-scale intervention study that has significant funding from the NIA and the CDC, and it is evaluating the effects over a long period of time,” Hammer explained. “We are looking at the effects on worker health, family health, and organizational health.”

Another important aspect of their study is that the two are working with other researchers from different areas of study outside I-O pscyhology, Kossek said. 

“It is really important that I-Os use other areas of study and their resources,” Kossek added. “To understand work-family conflict, you have to have experts in different social disciplines.”

Kossek said she hopes the research will help bring the concept of work-life balance and conflict to the forefront of organizations’ minds.

“I hope this research brings new life to the topic of work-family conflict,” Kossek said. “You can support someone to do their job, but it is also important for managers to learn to support work and family integration and to support all of the other aspects of employees’ lives outside of the workplace.”