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Stress and Powerlessness: Is Your Job Killing You?

Power is but a means to an end—that end being a longer and better life.

Key points

  • Stress can be a killer and the biggest source of stress is work.
  • Autonomy and control make the difference between stressful work and manageable work.
  • The path to more autonomy is power.

Over the course of what has now been 16 posts at the time of this writing, I’ve often given this or that reason why it’s vitally important to cultivate power and influence in organizational settings. For instance, I’ve argued for how you can use power and influence in good ways and how, conversely, you can use them to preempt those who might seek to use these qualities in harmful ways. The reasons I’ve already given are more than enough for a lot of people, but there may be others out there who still need a bit more convincing.

And so, in this post, I intend to put any and all remaining doubts to rest with the ultimate argument for why you simply must cultivate power and influence: Your life quite literally depends on it. That’s right. I said it literally depends on it.

Insights From the Whitehall Studies

The so-called Whitehall Studies were a series of influential studies done first in the '60s-'70s and then again in the '80s to examine how the social determinants of health among British civil servants affected their mortality rates. Social determinants of health, simply put, are those social and economic factors that influence people’s physical and mental well-being—things like education, employment, income level, and housing situation.

Tens of thousands of male and female civil servants were studied, and all variables were accounted for so that the subjects’ ranks and statuses within their organizations became the only meaningful variable with respect to their mortality rates. To summarize and put simply, those with higher status positions lived longer and those with lower status positions lived shorter. The difference was stark, with civil servants at the lowest level (such as doorkeepers) having a mortality rate three times higher than those at the highest level (such as administrators).

If you’re wondering if the higher mortality rate among some of the lower-level workers was associated with other risk factors such as smoking and obesity, that was indeed the case. But as you might be able to guess, those risk factors were correlated with the true, underlying cause of the problem: stress.

It has been long and widely understood that stress, especially chronic stress, negatively impacts health. What the Whitehall Studies found was that lower status workers were more likely to be highly stressed and therefore be at greater risk for unhealthy behaviors such as smoking and therefore have higher mortality rates. But even when accounting for other factors such as smoking and obesity, status position was still the single biggest causative factor. Again, it all came down to stress. Even among those who didn’t smoke or weren’t obese, it was the stress that did it. And what’s the single biggest source of stress for most people? You guessed it. It’s the workplace.

Now, understand, I am not using this study to say that you should single-mindedly and ruthlessly pursue the highest possible rank that you can at your workplace. All studies have necessary limitations, and the Whitehall studies focused on status level, which is a source of formal power. But remember that there are numerous sources of power and formal power is but one of them. If you’re the type to avoid the race up the corporate ladder, this doesn’t necessarily doom you to a life of unremitting stress and high mortality rates.

On balance, it should be acknowledged that ambitious pursuit of formal power can in itself become a significant source of stress, especially for groups who may face certain disadvantages such as Black people and women navigating male-dominated fields (though my aim here isn’t to discourage that path to formal power either).

The real reason that workers with high organizational status tend to experience lower amounts of stress and those with low organizational status tend to experience higher amounts of stress has a lot to do with the fact that workers with more formal power are more likely to have, or be able to negotiate, higher levels of autonomy, a manageable workload, and job control (i.e., the level of influence that you have on your particular work environment and responsibilities). Remember, power is but a means to an end, that end being more autonomy and control, the very things that can protect your health in a stressful environment.

Are You Dying for Your Paycheck?

One of the biggest proponents of the idea that your life literally depends on cultivating power and influence in the workplace is Jeffrey Pfeffer, whom I’ve written about previously with respect to the “power process,” or the process by which individuals can build and exercise their power. In 2018, Pfeffer released a book called Dying for a Paycheck, which is all about the ways that many modern companies mismanage their workplaces and, as a result, create settings and circumstances in which their workers are more likely to experience high stress and, consequently, less well-being and higher mortality rates. He also regularly gives talks about this topic (such as in this video).

In his book, Pfeffer extensively analyzes what companies and leaders consistently do wrong such that their employees’ health and well-being suffer. He also makes a definite case for how costly this is for those companies and for society as a whole, especially in the long term.

As costly as this problem is to both companies and society, Pfeffer discusses things that can be done on the part of organizations and governments, respectively, to mitigate the problem. For example, at the level of government, Pfeffer uses the example of environmental regulations and how putting these into place makes it less likely for companies to commit more egregious forms of harm. Likewise, Pfeffer argues that if governments could implement measures that would make companies incur the costs of ruining employees’ health, that would pressure those companies to make more rational decisions that ultimately benefit themselves as well as their employees.

Certainly, it would be great if this could happen, and I respect Pfeffer for making the case for why we should have more accountability at the organizational and governmental levels. But I think he would also agree with the argument that I’m going to make, which is that you shouldn’t wait around for this to happen because if or until it happens, your health and life could continue to be negatively impacted in the here and now.

Are you willing to take that risk? Are you going to entrust your life into the hands of your employer? Personally, I wouldn’t. That would be unnecessarily exposing yourself to potential harm, which is one of the top mistakes by which people constantly squander their own power. And I am confident that Pfeffer, who devoted so much of his career convincing people of the importance of building their personal power, would wholeheartedly agree with this.

So, if you shouldn’t wait around for your companies and bosses to start doing the right thing, then what should you do? You should keep doing exactly what you’re doing right now by reading my posts. You should seek out information that diagnoses the problems of workplace politics in ways that are honest and realistic and provides real, actionable steps you can take to better your lives (fashionable feel-good tips and mere wishful thinking won’t deliver lasting results).

If you’re new to my posts, welcome. I recommend going back to the beginning and reading them in sequential order.

Your life may depend on it.

Craig Barkacs, professor of business law and ethics in the Master’s in Executive Leadership and MBA Programs at the Knauss School of Business at the University of San Diego.