The Best Argument Yet For Flexibility At Work: It Leads To More Sleep

Man and his dog comfortably sleeping in.
Man and his dog comfortably sleeping in.

When you have more control over when and where you work, you get more sleep.

That's according to a new study published in the March issue of Sleep Health, which found that employees at an IT company slept an average of one hour longer each week when their bosses were supportive of work-life balance and gave workers the freedom to decide their own work schedules.

That translates into about eight extra minutes a day -- basically one hit on the snooze button.

“Who wouldn’t want a snooze alarm effect every day?” asked Ryan Olson, an occupational health psychologist at Oregon Health & Science Universities and one of several researchers who worked on the study, part of a larger project funded by the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Before the experiment at the IT company, one worker told researchers she woke up at 4:30 a.m. to get an early start and avoid evening rush hour traffic. With the new flex rules, she now gets up at around 6:00 a.m. and starts working at 7:00. “I get more sleep than I've had in years,” she said in the research paper.

Most of the advice on how to get more sleep is centered around things an individual can do: practices like yoga, mindfulness and turning off all digital devices an hour before bed. And of course, there are shelves full of medications offering a drugged-out shut-eye.

What’s notable about the new study is that the researchers -- from Harvard, Penn State, Portland State University and elsewhere -- looked at what companies could do to help workers, not what individual workers could do to help themselves.

The broader aim of their project, which encompasses several studies, is to see what happens when companies take steps to help reduce the amount of work-family conflict workers face. This particular paper showcases one delightful result: Employees slept more when they had more control over their work and were less stressed about balancing the competing demands of home and work.

The research is notable considering that about 30 percent of U.S. workers sleep less than six hours a night, according to the CDC.

For the study, randomly selected groups of workers at the IT company were given the flexibility to decide when and where they could work, as long as they got their jobs done. Their sleep was tracked digitally with smartwatches. The employees were observed over a year-long period and compared to a control group.

Workers who had control over their time were smart about structuring it. “If a person with a bad commute has the freedom to schedule and avoid traffic, they can find more time for family and sleep,” Olson said.

Employees were not just told “work whenever!” and left to figure it out. Managers were given training on how to create an environment that supported the flexibility policy. Olson said leaders were told to be good role models when it comes to work-life balance and to be emotionally supportive of workers, asking them things like, “What can I do to help you get your work done?” Some of those conversations allowed workers to express personal issues and helped managers figure out how to make their employees' lives easier.

“Supervisors were aware and supportive of everyone having a life outside of work,” said Olson. They were accommodating of various scheduling demands -- people didn’t have to ask if they could work from home one morning or leave early to pick up a sick kid, he said.

To be sure, there are millions of shift workers in the U.S. who have much less control over their schedules. A forthcoming part of this big study addresses that by examining work-family conflict at a long-term care facility where the law requires a certain number of staff members to be present, reducing the amount of flexibility available.

However, Olson pointed out that there are still ways to make work environments like the care facility more friendly to workers' needs. Managers could give workers more advanced notice of their schedules and the freedom to trade shifts with colleagues. And bosses can still be understanding. “In the hourly environment, you can still provide emotional support for people,” he said.