Promising work flexibility and health research doesn’t go anywhere

“A new evidence review* suggests that giving employees more flexibility over their work schedules is likely to boost their health as judged by measures like blood pressure and stress. But interventions that are motivated or dictated by the needs of the employer, such as cutting hours, either have no effect on employee health or make it worse.

“Control at work is good for health,” said review co-author Clare Bambra, a researcher at Durham University, in England. “Given the absence of ill health effects associated with employee-controlled flexibility and the evidence of some positive improvements in some health outcomes,” Bambra said, more flexibility in work schedules “has the potential to promote healthier workplaces and improve work practices.”

The above quote indicates that new evidence may help all of us in assessing the benefits or otherwise of allowing employees to telework, or of readjusting work practices to improve health and safety at work.

BUT

an article issued in support of the research clearly identifies the risks of drawing almost any firm conclusions from the evidence other than that more research is required:

“…the researchers added that the small number of the studies and their limitations should make observers cautious about the review’s conclusions.”

The report also looked at the potential health impacts of overtime.  The report itself states:

“This review examined the health and wellbeing effects of flexible working arrangements which favour the worker as well as those dictated by the employer (for example, fixed-term contracts or mandatory overtime).”

Several paragraphs later the report says

“…the study on overtime failed to provide detailed information on either the amount or duration of overtime worked, so it is therefore difficult to draw any conclusions regarding the effects of overtime on workers’ health and wellbeing.”

I am a big supporter of any research that provides information that can improve how workplace health and safety is managed but sometimes research reports, and I am not referring to the report quoted above specifically, seem to be issued to test the waters of public opinion through the media, as the research findings do not provide much of practical help.

Some seem to be trialling a new research strategy or a new research approach in a new area of study.  Clearly, I am not an academic so this may be a standing practice to progress a claim for additional research funding but from an OHS professional perspective I am more often than not disappointed at receiving research reports that show such potential and rarely live up to it.

OHS Research Imperatives

It is worth having a look at the authors’ actual conclusions:

“The findings of this review tentatively suggest that flexible working interventions that increase worker control and choice (such as self-scheduling or gradual/partial retirement) are likely to have a positive effect on health outcomes.  In contrast, interventions that were motivated or dictated by organisational interests, such as fixed-term contract and involuntary part-time employment, found equivocal or negative health effects. Given the partial and methodologically limited evidence base these findings should be interpreted with caution. Moreover, there is a clear need for well-designed intervention studies to delineate the impact of flexible working conditions on health, wellbeing and health inequalities.” (equivocations emphasised)

It is only fair to acknowledge that research needs to start somewhere but I wonder whether studies and reports like this are what are being used to support workplace health initiatives, like Victoria’s  WorkHealth, a program that I have been largely critical of in the past.  The Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is keen on “evidence-based decision-making” and it is reasonable to apply this as a benchmark for any public or workplace health initiative.

One concern about WorkHealth is that it is turning out to be a self-justifying program.  The Victorian WorkCover Authority punted an estimated $A600 million of workers’ compensation scheme interest on an idea, some say folly.  Whether the OHS benefits of the scheme are being independently assessed is unclear but according to one media report on 11 February 2010 a similar scheme is planned to be introduced on a national level but, curiously, as a men’s health program.  The media report says that a revised women’s health policy is due for release sometime in 2010 (the country has had a women’s health policy since the lat 1980s).

It looks like there remains a lack of clear integration or delineation on these programs and policies.  Is WorkHealth a public health program located in workplaces or a OHS program with public health benefits?  Does this matter?  It may be possibly to continue with a ill-defined health program at a State level but such a scheme on a National basis introduces an entirely fresh level of accountability.

As with any investigation and research it is essential to reach for the facts and ultimately, the truth.  Research for research’s sake seems to occur frequently but research into workplace safety must have a practical application.  That practicality must be stated at the outset of the project and must be used as a benchmark throughout the research project, otherwise research becomes nothing more than a career path for elitist OHS academics.

Kevin Jones

*Joyce K, et al. Flexible working conditions and their effects on employee health and wellbeing. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2010, Issue 2

Categories evidence, gender, health, Kevin Rudd, OHS, research, safety, Uncategorized, wellnessTags , ,

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