How do age and health shape the effects of flexible work arrangements?

Contemporary workplaces are characterised by increasing complexity, flux, and geographical dispersion providing a powerful impetus for flexible working arrangements (FWAs).

FWAs are linked to a host of beneficial work outcomes (e.g., performance, job satisfaction, and reduced work-family conflict; Baltes et al., 1999; Combs, Liu, Hall, & Ketchen, 2006). To capitalise on such benefits, it is necessary to understand how employee characteristics could impact on the effectiveness of FWAs.

In two fieldwork studies, Professors Rudolph (Saint Louis University) and Baltes (Wayne State University) found that the effects of FWAs on employee engagement are contingent upon age and health. This has implications for managing flexibility initiatives, particularly in the context of an aging workforce (Armstrong-Stassen, 2008).

Aim

The study aimed to answer the following research questions:

  1. What are the overall effects of FWAs on engagement over time?
  2. How does age shape the effects of FWAs on engagement?
  3. How do age and health work in tandem to shape the effects of FWAs on engagement?
Method

The two studies used four different measures of age and health:

  • Chronological age: age in years.
  • Functional health: the extent to which one feels able to carry out normal activities without being limited by health issues.
  • Subjective age: perceived age, how old one feels/acts.
  • Health symptom severity: the frequency of physical/psychological health complaints.

Study one: In study one, the researchers followed 838 people over a 10-month period to explore the impact of chronological age and functional health on the effectiveness of FWAs.

Study two: The purpose of study two was to see whether the results from study one would hold true for older workers. The sample consisted of 554 employees. Instead of focusing on chronological age, the study examined the impact of subjective age. This is because previous studies have shown that subjective age, how old one identifies as, can help older workers feel a sense of control. This alleviates some of the negative consequences of aging (Heckhausen, 1997).

Findings

Overall, FWAs had a positive impact on employee engagement. Nevertheless, these positive impacts appear amplified by certain age/health characteristics:

  1. Examining the effects of chronological age alone, FWAs appear particularly helpful for older workers in bolstering engagement (i.e. older respondents showed greater positive change in engagement over the 10-month period, β = .13, p < .05). This may be because older workers often have a greater need for flexible work arrangements given they typically have greater familial and caregiving responsibilities and/or a need to balance life more holistically.
  2. However, when examining the effects of age in conjunction with health, FWAs appear to have the most benefit for employee engagement in chronologically younger, healthier employees (i.e. three-way interaction between age, health, and flexibility: β = -0.05, p < .05). It may be that the combination of youth and health generally provides enhanced physical capacity which enables employees to use a range of flexibility strategies in innovative ways.
  3. Study two demonstrated that for older workers, improved health is linked with higher levels of work engagement irrespective of workers’ subjective/perceived age (simple slopes analysis: B = .60 to .93, p < .05).
Implications

To engage and retain employees, organisations need to implement flexibility policies. FWAs foster inclusion by supporting diverse needs such as remote working, caregiving responsibilities, and/or other personal commitments. Not only that, they serve to enhance company branding, enabling organisations to attract and retain valuable employees.

This research showed that health consistently bolsters the positive effects of FWAs on engagement. Study two showed that for older workers in particular, health appears to be an important determinant of engagement levels. Significantly, strategies aimed at improving employee functional health are likely to be a viable avenue for maximising the benefits of FWAs, particularly in the context of the contemporary aging workforce.

For more information, contact Andrea Espedido (aespedido@deloitte.com.au)

To read the full article, see Rudolph, C. W., & Baltes, B. B. (2017). Age and health jointly moderate the influence of flexible work arrangements on work engagement: Evidence from two empirical studies. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22, 40-58.

References

Armstrong-Stassen, M. (2008). Human resource practices for mature workers—And why aren’t employers using them? Asia Pacific Journal of Human Resources, 46, 334-352.

Baltes, B. B., Briggs, T. E., Huff, J. W., Wright, J. A., & Neuman, G. A. (1999). Flexible and compressed workweek schedules: A meta-analysis of their effects on work-related criteria. Journal of Applied Psychology, 84, 406-513.

Combs, J., Liu, Y., Hall, A., & Ketchen, D. (2006). How much do high-performance work practices matter? A meta-analysis of their effects on organizational performance. Personnel Psychology, 59, 501-528.

Heckhausen, J. (1997). Developmental regulation across adulthood: Primary and secondary control of age-related challenges. Developmental Psychology, 33, 176-187.

Reed, A. E., & Carstensen, L. L. (2012). The theory behind the age-related positivity effect. Frontiers in Psychology, 339, 1-9.


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