We all know that stressful workplaces can do a number on our physical and mental health (I've been there and it landed me in the hospital). But did you know it can literally kill you?

Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer's scientific analysis of the causes that lead to death at work was recently published in his book, Dying for a Paycheck.

Along with colleagues Joel Goh and Stefanos A. Zenios, the researchers reviewed 228 studies to explore ten common sources of workplace stress destroying the health of U.S. workers.

10 Common Workplace Stressors

  • No health insurance​
  • Exposure to shift work
  • Long hours/overtime
  • Job insecurity
  • Work-family conflict
  • Low job control
  • High job demands
  • Low social support at work
  • Organizational injustice

In an interview with Chicago Tribune, ​Pfeffer shared an eye-popping mortality statistic:

We found that there are basically 120,000 excess deaths per year attributed to these ten workplace conditions and they cause approximately $190 billion in incremental health care costs. That would make the workplace the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S. -- higher than Alzheimer's, higher than kidney disease.

Pfeffer says approximately 5 to 8 percent of annual healthcare costs are associated with and may be attributable to how U.S. companies manage their work forces.

His team used four ​methods of reporting​ employee health to examine the ten stressors, including: doctor-reported illnesses, mortality​ rates, self-rated physical illnesses, and self-rated mental illnesses.

Here are the findings: 

Top Stressors on Doctor-Reported Illnesses (from lowest to highest)

The Stanford study found the lack of health insurance had the biggest impact on physician-diagnosed mortality.

  • Job insecurity

  • Long work hours/overtime

  • Low social support at work

  • Low job control

  • Secondhand smoke exposure

  • Unemployment

  • Exposure to shift work

  • High job demands

  • Low organizational justice 

  • No health insurance 

Top Stressors on Mortality (from lowest to highest)

Low job control is typical in micromanagement environments and was the top stressor on mortality. Another interesting finding is that long work hours increased mortality by almost 20 percent.

  • Secondhand smoke exposure

  • Work/family conflict 

  • Long work hours/overtime 

  • No health insurance

  • Unemployment

  • Low job control

Top Stressors on Self-Rated Physical Health (from lowest to highest)

It was found that employees who reported that their work demands prevented them from meeting their family obligations (or vice versa) were 90 percent more likely to self-report poor physical health.

  • Low organizational justice
  • Low social support at work
  • No health insurance
  • Low job control
  • High job demands
  • Secondhand smoke exposure
  • Job insecurity
  • Unemployment 
  • Work-family conflict

Top Stressors on Self-Rated Mental Health (from lowest to highest)

  • Long work hours/overtime

  • Exposure to shift work

  • Low social support at work

  • Low job control

  • Job insecurity

  • Secondhand smoke exposure

  • Low organizational justice

  • High job demands

  • Unemployment

  • Work-family conflict

The bottom line

While workplaces have dramatically lowered physical accidents and safety issues, Pfeffer argues that the health impacts of social or stress-related work conditions have remained unaddressed. He says, "We focused on the physical environment, and we now need to focus on the social environment -- the human environment."

Another argument of Pfeffer's is that wellness programs that emphasize things like health risk assessments, exercise and smoking cessation don't work for preventing these outcomes. In fact, many times workers will adopt unhealthy lifestyle habits, like overeating, because of overbearing and stressful work conditions. Here's Pfeffer in the Tribune interview:

Wellness programs are an attempt to remediate the harmful attempts of what's going on in the workplace. Instead of remediation you need to prevent. Instead of causing you to over-smoke and over-drink and over-eat and under-exercise because of what goes on in the workplace, and then giving you a wellness program, they should change the underlying work conditions. If I change the workplace so you didn't do that stuff in the first place, you wouldn't need a wellness program.

To Pfeffer's point, the focus on prevention begins with changing management practices and toxic work cultures, which cause the unfortunate things that lead to significant health issues and even death. 

Published on: Nov 21, 2018
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