We intuitively know that the impact of a toxic workplace isn't healthy, even if the behaviors that trigger the toxicity aren't as obvious. We can sense that when we have a boss who brightens up the room by being absent that it's probably not a good thing.

But no one could have predicted Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer's findings shared in his just-released book, Dying for a Paycheck. The professor of organizational behavior states that the workplace is the 5th leading cause of deaths in the US, higher than Alzheimer's or kidney disease.

Pfeffer's research shows that the mismanagement of workforces causes more than 120,000 deaths a year and accounts for five to eight percent of annual healthcare costs. He cites conditions like excessive work hours, work-family conflict, lack of health insurance and lack of control and autonomy.

Here are the most important things about what Pfeffer's research shows and why I think he's exactly right: 

It's time for a watershed moment in workplace health.

The impact of toxic work environments has reached crisis levels. More than a million people a year are dying in China due to overwork. Between January 2008 and Spring 2010 46 employees at France Telecom committed suicide as a result of "cost-cutting and reorganizations." Two-million workplace violence incidents are reported a year.

In the midst of this crisis, Pfeffer points out the need to measure and regulate workplace health like we've done with OSHA and workplace safety (and have thus correspondingly seen dramatic improvements in safety). That means measuring hours worked, levels of work-family conflict, whether or not someone has health insurance, even whether or not enough autonomy is being granted.

As Pfeffer told the Chicago Tribune:

"We've said to companies they can't pass costs of environmental damage on to to society. We haven't done that with respect to health. I would argue that it's actually harder to measure smokestack emissions than it is to measure healthy work conditions. If we wanted to regulate it, we could regulate it."

You get what you measure. It takes leaders elevating the seriousness of workplace health at their company to such a level that it becomes a priority. Which leads us to the next point.

It's about preventing workplace health issues versus treating them after the fact. 

Pfeffer correctly argues that it's about leaders focusing on stopping corrosive management practices instead of instituting after the fact wellness programs. Employees engage in corrosive behaviors like over-eating, excessive drinking, not getting enough sleep or exercise or being super-stressed because of their workplace environment. So what do we do?

We throw a wellness program at them after the fact.

Instead, we should preventatively address the underlying work conditions so unhealthy feeder behaviors are never triggered in the first place. This takes commitment and elevation of the issue of workplace health on the company agenda. Which leads us to the next point.

Individual leaders/managers must take ownership of the environment they create.

So far, I've put a lot of this on "the company." But in truth, so much of intervening on the state of workplace health comes down to the individual manager. As one quote from Pfeffer's book poignantly states, "According to the Mayo Clinic, the person you report to at work is more important for your health than your family doctor."

This is both a major wake-up call and call-to-arms for anyone who manages another human being. You contribute more to your employees' health and well-being than you ever imagined.

Start by being aware of the hours your employees are working and ask yourself these three questions:

  1. Is it sustainable? 
  2. In what ways am I contributing to an excessive workload and
  3. What changes can I make to "right-size" the workload of any one person?

You can also elevate self-awareness of the behaviors you're engaging in that are creating a toxic environment. Be vulnerable and get feedback from your employees on your management style. Start by stopping your tendency to micromanage--one of the major offender habits called out in Pfeffer's work.  

The time for dramatically improved workplace health has come. It's time to administer prevention, not prescriptions.