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Flexibility and Burnout

May 25 2017 - Some people always feel emotionally wiped out at work. They seem withdrawn and unhappy about the quality of their work. They are, to sum it up, burned out.

Burnout can happen to anyone, whether the person is naturally cheerful or easily depressed. The same advice was given to everyone in the past -- work harder, or work less. Talk to someone about your problems. Find a way to escape the treadmill for a little while.

Research released last year showed that workers at a Fortune 500 company participating in a pilot work flexibility program showed higher levels of job satisfaction and lower levels of burnout and psychological stress than fellow employees who were not participating. This study - apparently the first randomized controlled trial measuring the effects of workplace flexibility in a U.S. firm - was headed by University of Minnesota Sociologist Phyllis Moen and Erin L. Kelly, a Professor in Work and Organization Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Their study, "Does a Flexibility/Support Organizational Initiative Improve High-Tech Employees' Well-Being? Evidence from the Work, Family, and Health Network," was published in the February 2016 issue of the American Sociological Review.

The researchers divided the employees into two groups:

  • One half participated in a pilot program, learning about work practices designed to increase their sense of control over their working lives. These practices were focused on results, not 'face time' at work.
  • The other half formed a control group, excluded from the training program, and governed by the organization's preexisting policies.

The first group implemented the practices they were taught. These included:
- changing work schedules;
- working more from home;
- rethinking the number of daily meetings attended;
- increasing their communication via instant messenger;
- anticipating periods of high demand more effectively.

Managers in the pilot group were also given supervisor training to encourage support for the work/ife and professional development of their staff.

According to Moen and Kelly, employees in the pilot program said they felt they had more control over their schedules, support from managers, and also said they had enough time to spend with their families. Additionally, they reported:

  • Greater job satisfaction
  • Less burn out and less stress
  • Decreased psychological distress, captures depressive symptoms that do not amount to clinical depression

Erin L. Kelly said that flexible work arrangements often had a bad reputation. "The worker thinks, 'If I ask for special treatment, it will kill my career and I won't get promoted.' The manager thinks, 'If I give in to this employee, others will ask me too and no one will get their work done.' Even many academics take a skeptical view flex of programs and see them as a way for Corporate America to take advantage of workers."

Phyllis Moen contended that it shouldn't be this way, "Our research demonstrates that workers who are allowed to have a voice in the hours and location of their work not only feel better about their jobs, but also less conflicted about their work-to-family balance. Crucially, these workers are also more efficient and more productive on the job. In other words, workplace flexibility is beneficial - not detrimental to organizations."

"Today's workers are bombarded by advice on how to juggle their work and family lives - we're told to take up yoga, or learn to meditate, or only check email twice a day," she said. "But individual coping strategies alone won't solve the problem. Our study makes clear that organizational initiatives, including programs that promote greater flexibility and control for workers as well as greater supervisor support, are needed."

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