Stress is a major contributor to the risk of heart disease, the number one cause of death in our country, and work is a major source of stress. For working adults, bad bosses, crushing commutes and long hours at the office, while feeling the squeeze at home, can create the perfect stress storm.

Their hearts pay the price for this stress, but changing certain aspects of the work day can ease stress and improve heart health for some workers, according to a new study led by researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Penn State University.

The reduction in the risk for cardiac disease was significant — putting workers at a risk category equivalent to that of a person between five and ten years younger.

Flexibility, in the hours workers spent in the workplace and a better work-life balance, reduced the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) — especially among workers who were over 45 or who were already dealing with cardiometabolic issues like abdominal obesity, insulin resistance, dyslipidemia (too many lipids or fats in the blood) and rising blood pressure, the study found.

Employees at two companies participated in the study — 555 workers at an IT company and over 970 employees at a long-term care company. Workers were randomly assigned to one of the two interventions.

Supervisors at both companies received training on strategies to show support for their employees’ personal lives, alongside their job performance. Managers and employees also attended a training to identify ways to increase workers' control over their schedules, a priority among many employees.

This two-fold approach did the trick. Offering employees a more flexible schedule and supportive supervisors helped employees' hearts. “When stressful workplace conditions and work-family conflict were mitigated, we saw a reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease among more vulnerable employees, without any negative impact on their productivity,” co-lead author of the study and Harvard University professor, Lisa Berkman, said in a press release.

About 1500 employees at two companies participated in the study.

“These findings could be particularly consequential for low- and middle-wage workers who traditionally have less control over their schedules and job demands and are subject to greater health inequities,” Berkman added.

The researchers found that there were significant reductions in cardiac risk factors among employees over 45 years old, as well as those who already had high cardiac risk scores.

The reduction in the risk for cardiac disease was significant — putting workers at a risk category equivalent to that of a person between five and ten years younger.

The interventions in both workplaces didn’t have a significant impact on the cardiometabolic risk scores of employees in general, just those with risk scores that were already quite high.

The implications of the study probably go beyond these metrics, however. “The intervention was designed to change the culture of the workplace over time with the intention of reducing conflict between employees’ work and personal lives and ultimately improving their health,” Orfeu M. Buxton, co-lead author of the study and Penn State University professor, pointed out.

It makes sense that having more personal control over aspects of employment adds to health and happiness. Ideally, it can create more opportunities for workers to enjoy time with their families and fulfill their household responsibilities.

Flexible work arrangements also mean that people have the freedom to engage in wellness activities such as going for walks or trips to the gym — a win-win for employees and their employers.

The study is published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH).