Giving workers more flexibility can extend lives, study finds | Crain's Philadelphia

Giving workers more flexibility can extend lives, study finds

Celadon Trucking’s Gordon Day is taking advantage of a new company policy that allows drivers to take their cats and dogs on the road with them. An Indiana University study found that giving workers in high-stress jobs additional freedom isn’t just a morale booster but could also help them live longer. | Photo courtesy of Celadon Trucking

Affording employees more control over their work will not only pay off in more productivity but can also add years to their life, new research suggests.

Those in high-stress jobs who had little control over how their work gets done were 15.4 percent more likely to die younger than those with more discretion at work, according to research from Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, an organizational behavior professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.

He and co-author Bethany Cockburn of the University of Iowa studied the fates of 2,363 Wisconsin workers in their 60s over seven years.

Frontline service workers and those in manufacturing positions with little control often fared worst. They were more likely to eat more, smoked or turned to other unhealthy behavior to cope with the stress, according to the study.

In contrast, those in stressful but “high-control” jobs were 34 percent less likely to have died than those in low-demand roles.

“You can avoid the negative consequences if you allow them to set their own goals, set their own schedules, prioritize their decision-making and the like,” Gonzalez-Mulé said in a statement.

Some companies have gone down this road of more control, including Indianapolis-based Celadon Trucking, one of North America’s largest trucking companies.

“We now have a pet policy, which allows drivers to take their dogs and cats on the road,” said Celadon spokesman Joe Weigel.

It’s not clear whether that freedom for drivers contributes to the bottom line, but such allowances are welcomed by drivers in a profession that’s ruled by strict government regulations, unpredictable traffic and absolute deadlines.

Michael Partin’s employees also face deadlines and rigid government regulations, particularly his mortgage loan originators.

So the co-owner of Finance of America Mortgage-The Parker Mortgage Team, in Noblesville, Ind., decided to hire assistants for his busy originators.

“That takes some of the stress off the loan officers, giving them some flexibility” in their daily routines, Partin said.

Partin has also deployed team-building experiences, including one recently that imparted an ultimate feeling of control.

“Two weeks ago we took employees to the shooting range,” Partin said. “It’s fun. You’re learning something not everybody knows how to do.”

He’s also taken real estate agents to the range, to build relationships with those with whom his firm does business.

IU’s Gonzalez-Mulé recommends that employers, where possible, allow workers to have “a voice” in the goal-setting process at work; specifically, a two-way conversation rather than a micro-management style of decrees from on-high.

Boston-based Pyramid Hotel Group has encouraged its hotel managers to take such a route. For example, Jeff Sweet, general manager of Hilton Indianapolis Hotel & Suites, established subcommittees of hourly employees and management, the Indy Star has reported.

Employees contribute ideas on everything from finance to guest services to cleaning supplies. Committees give employees a formal opportunity to contribute ideas and a sense of ownership of operations, Sweet told the Star. Sweet also dines with employees on a monthly basis to capture their concerns and ideas.

Gonzalez-Mulé said the study underscored the importance of a trend known as “job-crafting,” which is giving employees a chance to mold their jobs to make them more meaningful and rewarding. This could be something as simple as allowing flex-time or changing the method on which compensation is determined so as to give them a better feel for the value of their work.

Even if faced with a high-stress, low-control job there are things employees can do, such as “take yourself out of the drama,” suggested Dr. Anne Gilbert, a psychiatrist at Indiana University Health's Methodist Hospital.

Rather than focusing on worst-cast scenario thoughts focus on the task at hand “and pull your mind out of the ‘what ifs,’” Gilbert said.

Other strategies – such as physical movement, deep breathing or meditation, and limiting how often one checks email – also may help.

“It makes sense that people who have perceived control over their work find stress stimulating as opposed to onerous,” Gilbert said.

“What I have learned from 25 years as a psychiatrist is that your viewpoint changes your emotions,” she continued. “The pain from sore muscles after a 5-mile jog is perceived much differently than the pain from sore muscles from an automobile accident. When you have control over your job stress, you at some level know you can stop at any time, even if you don’t choose to.”

Ultimately, however, it’s best for everyone that companies find the right person for the position, Partin said.

“If I had to input data into spread sheets all day I would beat my face against the monitor and hate my job and jump out the window. (But) when you’re doing what you’re designed to do, you’re going to be good at it,” he said.

October 27, 2016 - 3:58pm