Is Your Job Killing You? Literally Killing You?

Recent research indicates that several work stress factors can cause deaths.

Posted Nov 05, 2018

Whoismargot/Pixabay
Source: Whoismargot/Pixabay

It’s common to hear people complain that their job is “killing” them or claim that the drudgery of their jobs “sucks the lifeblood” out of them, leaving them exhausted, depressed, and lethargic by the end of the work week. According to recent research by Jeffrey Pfeffer, Ph.D. of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, certain types of workplace conditions may actually result in premature death. In his 2018 book entitled Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do About It, Pfeffer reports on his meta-analysis research which examined the types of workplace and work-related characteristics that contribute to early death and other health and mental health problems.

Pfeffer enumerates ten work-related factors that can impact health and longevity (Pfeffer 2018, p. 43):

  1. Being unemployed sometimes as a result of a layoff.
  2. Not having health insurance. 
  3. Working shifts and also working longer periods, e.g., ten or twelve-hours shifts.
  4.  Working long hours in a week (e.g., more than 40 hours per week).
  5. Job insecurity (resulting from colleagues being laid off or fired).
  6. Facing family-to-work and work-to-family spillover or conflict.
  7. Having relatively low control over one’s job e.g., workload.
  8. Facing high work demands such as pressure to increase productivity and to work quickly.
  9. Being in a work environment that offers low levels of social support (e.g., not having close relationships with co-workers.
  10. Working in a setting in which job- and employment-related decisions seem unfair.

The impact of these work stressors can be as “harmful as secondhand smoke” according to Pfeffer’s research on health and mental health effects.

Stress researchers have well documented how stress (whether it be work stress or personal stress) results in increased levels of cortisol in our blood and cortisol is associated with many types of physical ailments (e.g., cardiac problems like hypertension or certain types of cancer). So when Jeffrey Pfeffer says that work stress can lead you to an early grave, he’s not kidding. And he has the data to back it up. I witnessed this anecdotally when a co-worker of mine was being stalked by a former disgruntled student. The student had even gone to such lengths as to find out where my co-worker's daughter attended school and posted pictures of the daughter. Things had gotten so bad that the police had to intervene. Several months later, my co-worker developed breast cancer. She had been in excellent health up to the time when the student began stalking her. While we can't know if there was a causal link between her stress and illness, and there were likely other etiological factors in addition to the stress created by stalking, it is also well-accepted that cortisol generally impacts one’s physical health negatively.

I highly recommend that you read Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book. It is thorough, thoughtful, and well-researched. He provides many important strategies for how employees can take back control over their own health and mental health and discusses what factors help to make for healthy workplaces. 

References

Pfeffer, J. (2018). Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance –and  What         We Can Do About It, New York: Harper Collins.