A study conducted as a collaborative effort by multiple American universities has revealed that improved sleep is an extra added benefit of working a flexible schedule. The study was conducted by researchers at Oregon Health & Science University, Portland State University, Harvard and Penn State among others, and was geared towards determining whether a flexible schedule reduced conflicts between work and family life. The study did not have a goal of improving sleep, yet determined that those who were allowed to work on a flexible schedule added approximately one hour of sleep each week.
The study followed a group of some 500 I.T. professionals who were provided the opportunity to work flex schedules to accommodate their personal lives. The control group in the study was their colleagues, who continued working in the office setting on a set schedule. Both groups worked approximately 45 hours per week, but the flex group was able to choose their environment. Some went in to the office, some worked from home, and some chose another location. The increase in sleep quantity and quality was not dramatic, but was enough to make a difference in improving the amount of rest that the subjects got, as well as diminishing their risk of a variety of health conditions that have been linked to sleep deprivation, including high blood pressure, obesity, depression and cardiovascular disease. According to Orfeu Buxton, an associate professor at Penn State who was involved with the study, “Work can be a calling and inspirational, as well as a paycheck, but work should not be detrimental to health. It is possible to mitigate some of the deleterious effects of work by reducing work-family conflict and improving sleep.”
The researchers all largely agreed that the optimal amount of sleep time falls somewhere between seven and nine hours per night, though individual needs can vary. The group that was involved in the study all worked for a large, unidentified I.T. firm and the employees who were offered the opportunity to work the flex schedule were randomly selected. Those who were chosen were provided with a three-month training program on working a flexible schedule so that they would transition easily from the mindset of having to clock in and out and take responsibility for making their own decision about when and where to work. Similar training was provided to the group’s supervisors in order to keep them supportive of the flex workers’ independence — they were even given iPods with built-in apps reminding them to be encouraging and positive. The participants’ sleep was tracked through an actigraphy sleep watch that tracked their sleep at the study’s beginning, middle and end.
According to Olson, “Without addressing it directly, we still improved the sleep of hundreds of employees a year after we saw them.” The group felt that if the subjects had been provided with sleep hygiene coaching, even greater gains could have been achieved. Though flexible schedules have been widely praised, many companies have resisted adopting them, and some that have established flexible schedule policies have rescinded them.