Does a Flexibility/Support Organizational Initiative Improve High-Tech Employees’ Well-Being? Evidence from the Work, Family, and Health Network
An organizational intervention that promotes workers’ flexibility and supervisor support increases job-related well-being among IT workers, as well as general well-being among women.
Demanding work environments with little job control and support can create stress and erode physical and emotional health. Such effects may be especially pronounced for workers with a greater mismatch between low coping resources and high demands. These workers include lower-level employees, workers with children, and women. Women, in particular, disproportionately bear responsibility for work within the home and family, experience more conflict between professional and family roles, and frequently face unequal barriers at work. Intervention research on work and well-being have commonly focused on changing individual stress reduction strategies, which to not remove these structural workplace barriers for women. Observational research has examined differences across worker statues and environments, such as high vs. low control jobs, but does not test whether changing structural aspects of the workplace impacts well-being.
Here, the authors test the potential for a deliberate, organizational-level intervention to increase subjective well-being among IT workers who experience demanding work environments without the additional stress of low income. It is hypothesized that because women, especially women with children, are more vulnerable to greater stress than men because they are typically burdened by caregiving responsibilities at home in addition to work stress. The STAR intervention, which is evaluated in this study, aims to increase employees’ control over their schedules, increase supervisors’ support for family and personal life, and create a cultural orientation toward results rather than long hours. The intervention uses initial trainings, institutes a policy of allowing work from home without supervisor approval, and uses additional tailored approaches generated by participating teams. The study tracked the effectiveness of these changes, as well as job satisfaction, burnout, perceived stress, and psychological distress. The authors assessed outcomes after one year, and compared results for women and men, and workers with and without children.
Over one year—spanning an unexpected, stressful merger announcement—the STAR intervention increased well-being among IT workers, with broader effects for women.
- Overall effects: Participants in the STAR intervention reported significantly higher levels of both job-related and general well-being, compared to workers following usual practice.
- Job-related well-being: Among participants in the STAR intervention, job satisfaction increased with small-to-moderate effect size of 0.27, and burnout (emotional exhaustion) decreased with small-to-moderate effect size of 0.36.
- General well-being: Among participants in the STAR intervention, perceived stress and psychological distress both decreased with small effect sizes of 0.18
- These overall effects had a few key causes. Increased schedule control in the STAR intervention—which included flexibility to work from home at will—contributed significantly to improved outcomes. Reduced family-to-work conflict and reduced burnout also reduced participants’ psychological distress.
- Effects by gender: Women benefited more broadly than men from the STAR intervention, compared to women and men following usual practice.
- Job-related well-being: Women and men in the STAR intervention benefited similarly in terms of increased job satisfaction and decreased burnout.
- General well-being: Only women in the STAR intervention reported significantly lower psychological distress and marginally significantly lower perceived stress—bringing them to levels similar to that of both men in the STAR intervention and men following usual practice.
- General well-being and active parenting status: Women without children appeared to benefit most from the STAR intervention—because psychological distress increased for women without children following usual practice, while declining for all other women and remaining constant for men. This suggests the need to better understand complex stressors for women, extending beyond parenting responsibilities.
- Effects for employees and managers: Employees benefited somewhat more broadly than managers from the STAR intervention, compared to employees and managers following usual practice.
- Job-related well-being: Employees and managers in the STAR intervention benefited similarly in terms of decreased burnout, but only employees reported significantly increased job satisfaction—to a level similar to that of managers.
- General well-being: Employees and managers in the STAR intervention benefited similarly in terms of decreased psychological distress and decreased burnout.
In short, these findings show that organizational efforts to increase flexibility and support can improve well-being among workers, and may be especially beneficial to workers with greater work, personal, and family demands, including lower-level employees and women.
The study initially recruited 867 employees and managers from all eligible IT units in two locations of a US company. Participants were organized into 56 study groups, which were randomized to either the STAR program or usual workplace practice. Analysis focused on the Early Survey Group, 455 workers (36% women) in 32 study groups who completed the baseline survey and largely completed training prior to an expected major stressor: a merger announcement. STAR had no effects on subjective well-being for a separate group of workers who began the intervention after the merger announcement—suggesting that workers are unlikely to benefit when already facing workplace upheaval.
The STAR program, developed by the Work Family and Health Network (WFHN) research consortium, aims to promote workers’ subjective well-being by increasing three work resources: employees’ control over their schedules, supervisors’ support for family and personal life, and a cultural orientation toward results rather than long hours. All workers completed an 8-hour training, gained flexibility to work from home without supervisor approval, and developed additional group-specific approaches to increase schedule control and results orientation. Supervisors completed an additional 4-hour training that encouraged support for workers’ family and personal life and professional development. STAR materials are available online.
Participants were surveyed at baseline, 6 months, and 12 months on four measures of subjective well-being: burnout (or emotional exhaustion, 3 items), job satisfaction (3 items), perceived stress (4 items, employees only), and psychological distress (6 items). The surveys also assessed perceptions of schedule control, family-supportive supervisor behaviors, and family-to-work and work-to-family conflict; work schedule variability and hours working at home; and demographic information including family demographics.