Managers’ attitudes toward work-family issues can affect employees’ health

3 min read

As the United States’ workforce grows more diverse, an increasing number of Americans are balancing work and family responsibilities. In a paper appearing in a recent issue of the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, Harvard School of Public Health professor Lisa Berkman and colleagues draw attention to the effects that workplace policies toward this issue can have on employees’ health. Through interviews with managers at four Massachusetts nursing homes, and surveys and medical data collected from their employees, the researchers found that employees whose managers were less supportive of their needs to balance home and work responsibilities slept less (29 minutes/day) than employees whose managers were more flexible. They also were more than twice as likely to have two or more risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD).

“This is one of the very first studies to show that a manager’s behavior and the kinds of practices and attitudes she or he has in terms of flexibility with work and family issues has an impact on the health of workers,” said Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, and Thomas D. Cabot Professor of Public Policy and of Epidemiology. “In the next phase of this study we are exploring whether modifying workplace practices towards work family issues will improve not only the health of the workers and their families but also of the workplace itself by reducing turnover.”

The researchers invited all employees and their managers at four Massachusetts nursing homes to participate, with about 400 employees and managers completing the study. Employees were surveyed about their experiences with workplace policies and informal practices and had their risk of CVD assessed by blood cholesterol, high blood sugar or diabetes, blood pressure and hypertension, body-mass index, and tobacco consumption. Their sleeping patterns were monitored using a non-invasive wrist device. Through interviews, managers were rated on their flexibility and creativity in managing employee work-family issues.

The researchers found that managers who, for example, were open to adjusting employees’ schedules to suit their family or home needs, or discussing family leave with job security, were an important resource for employees. In contrast, managers who rated low on work-family openness and creativity appeared to have a negative effect on their employees’ health.

Direct patient care workers who had managers with less supportive practices toward work/family balance were more at risk for CVD than workers in other positions who had similar managers. Since this is a rapidly growing sector in health care, if these findings are replicated, special attention should be paid to training the managers of direct care workers in supportive work family policies, according to the researchers. Since many of these managers are promoted on the basis of their clinical care skills, the findings indicate a need for training in management practices.