Work Flexibility and Worker Well-being: Evidence from the United StatesPosted on by
Work flexibility can have positive and negative consequences for workers and their families, employers, and society overall. [1,2] For workers, it is increasingly recognized as an essential determinant of their well-being. Workers seek flexibility to address their personal and family needs, including childcare, eldercare, schooling, and healthcare. Flexibility in terms of work location and schedule gives workers a sense of job control, and increases their job satisfaction, thereby improving their health and well-being.  Some of the work-family conflicts associated with contingent work – jobs that workers do not expect to last – can be alleviated by the benefits of work schedule flexibility.  Work flexibility can accommodate the needs of many workers, such as aging workers and women who have been joining the workforce in large numbers , by enabling them to allocate resources between work and non-work domains according to their preferences. 
For employers and organizations, work flexibility contributes to their ability to attract and retain workers, and affects their workers’ engagement and productivity. The lack of worker access to flexible arrangements is an important reason for the current “great resignation.”  From the societal perspective, work flexibility, especially work location flexibility, can accommodate short- or long-term operational continuity if workplace closures become necessary. This has been evident during the ongoing pandemic.
However, not all the consequences of flexibility are positive. For example, the blurring of work and non-work life boundaries due to working at home can negatively affect workers and their families and globalization has spread job tasks across time zones. These trends, combined with technological advancements that accommodate rapid reductions in certain types of economic transaction costs, such as labor productivity monitoring costs, have altered organizational practices, including work flexibility. 
Because the significance of work flexibility for workers, employers, and society overall is expected to continue to increase, a recent NIOSH study assessed the prevalence of work flexibility and how it relates to worker well-being.  The study used weighted General Social Survey-Quality of Worklife (GSS_QWL) data from 2002 to 2018. While there is no standard definition for work flexibility, the study used three common indicators:
- Location flexibility, measured as working at home at least once a week.
- Leave flexibility, measured as the ability to take time off for family needs being not too hard or not at all hard.
- Schedule flexibility, measured as the ability to change starting and quitting times on a daily basis at least sometimes.
The study assessed flexibility among workers across demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, industries, and work arrangements. Four indicators of well-being were used, including:
- Job stress.
- Job satisfaction.
- The number of healthy days during the previous thirty days.
- The number of days with activity limitations due to poor health in the last thirty days.
The study identified several statistically significant associations among work flexibility and well-being indicators over the period examined, including:
- Overall, the prevalence of flexibility indicators changed minimally during the period examined.
- Working at home has remained almost the same at 33% since 2010. Note that in the last couple of years, the ability to work remotely increased in the United States. For example, in May 2020, 35% of workers teleworked. Analyses using QWL data from 2022 after they become available will provide updated information on the prevalence of flexibility indicators and related well-being outcomes.
- The prevalence of changing one’s schedule was 55% in 2014, the last year for which data on this indicator was available; and the prevalence of taking time off was 74% in 2018.
- Within industry sectors, the highest percentage of workers who reported working at home was in agriculture, forestry, and fishing, followed by services; taking time off was highest in construction followed by services; and changing their schedule was highest in construction and agriculture, forestry and fishing.
- Across work arrangements (independent contractors, on-call workers, temporary help agency workers, workers working for a contractor, and workers in standard arrangements):
- Independent contractors reported the highest percentages for all flexibility indicators.
- On-call workers had higher flexibility to change their schedules but lower flexibility to work at home than those in standard arrangements.
- Those working for temporary help agencies had the lowest flexibility to work at home, take time off, and change their schedule.
- Working at home increased the likelihood of job stress by 26% and job satisfaction by 67%. While this finding might seem counterintuitive, other studies also have demonstrated that work flexibility can promote work–family balance, and, in turn, job satisfaction, but it can also intensify work–family conflict by blurring the division between work and non-work domains. 
- Taking time off decreased the likelihood of job stress by 59%, decreased the days with activity limitations by 22%, and more than doubled the likelihood of job satisfaction. Changing one’s schedule decreased the likelihood of job stress by 20% and increased the likelihood of job satisfaction by 60%.
This is one of very few studies that present work flexibility prevalence statistics across recent years using nationally representative data. Its findings can serve as a baseline as future studies examine work flexibility during the pandemic and beyond. This study’s findings also can inform broad, anticipated changes in well-being due to the ongoing changes in the workplace, work, and workforce.
Economic aspects of overall worker health and well-being, along with physical, psychological, and social aspects, are a fundamental focus of the NIOSH Healthy Work Design and Well-being Program. Work flexibility is expected to be an increasingly significant contributor to worker well-being in the future.
Tapas Ray, PhD, is an Economist in the NIOSH Economic Research and Support Office and Co-Assistant Coordinator of the Healthy Work Design and Well-Being Cross-Sector program.
Rene Pana-Cryan, PhD, is Chief Economist and the Director of the NIOSH Economic Research and Support Office, and Co-Manager for the Healthy Work Design and Well-Being Cross-Sector program.
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- Dean A, Aeurbach A. They need flexibility, but only 47% have it. HBR, 2018, June 5. Available online: https://hbr.org/2018/06/96-of-u-s-professionals-say-they-need-flexibility-but-only-47-have-it (accessed on March 7, 2022).
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- One-quarter of the employed teleworked in August 2020 because of COVID-19 pandemic. 2020. https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2020/one-quarter-of-the-employed-teleworked-in-august-2020-because-of-covid-19-pandemic.htm .
- Kim, J.; Henly, J.R.; Golden, L.M.; Lambert, S.J. Workplace flexibility and worker well-being by gender. J Marriage Fam 2020 82:892–910.