How fatal can workplace stress be?

Stressed-Out4Workplace stress can be a lethal thing.  Indeed, the Japanese have a specific word (karoshi) for work related suicides.  Over the years, there have been various things that have been touted as helping to combat work related stress, whether it’s a shorter commute or even more control over your job.

A fascinating new study highlights just how big a role this control can have on your stress levels, and subsequently your overall mental and physical health.

The health benefits of control

The researchers tracked a few thousand Wisconsin residents over a seven year period to gauge whether the control they had in their working lives had any impact on their mortality rates.  The results were telling, with those in demanding jobs over which they had little control 15% more likely to die compared to peers in less demanding jobs.

By contrast, for those in demanding jobs who had a degree of control over affairs, their mortality rate actually dropped by 34%.

“We explored job demands, or the amount of work, time pressure and concentration demands of a job, and job control, or the amount of discretion one has over making decisions at work, as joint predictors of death,” the authors say.

“These findings suggest that stressful jobs have clear negative consequences for employee health when paired with low freedom in decision-making, while stressful jobs can actually be beneficial to employee health if also paired with freedom in decision-making.”

Death in the workplace

The study is important because there aren’t many explorations of deaths in the workplace, or their causes.  Indeed, the authors believe their study to be the first to explore any relationships between mortality and the various characteristics of our job.

What’s more, the paper reveals that it isn’t stress or workload per se that contribute to workplace related fatalities, but the level of control employees are given as to how that work is done.

“You can avoid the negative health consequences if you allow them to set their own goals, set their own schedules, prioritize their decision-making and the like,” they say. “companies should allow employees to have a voice in the goal-setting process, so when you’re telling someone what they’re going to do … it’s more of a two-way conversation.”

Not only did micro-management have an adverse effect on the mental wellbeing of employees, it was also shown to have an adverse effect on their weight, with those in the high-demand/low-control camps heavier than their peers in high-demand/high-control roles.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, health issues were significantly higher in entry-level roles than those in more professional jobs.  It also champions the benefits of job crafting, which is something I’ve written about before.

Previous studies have shown that those employees with the ability to craft their own job descriptions showed improvements in areas such as work engagement, lower burnout and job satisfaction.

“In some settings, it will be difficult to do this. For a construction worker, it’s going to really hard to allow them autonomy; there’s usually just one right way to do things. In jobs like that, it’s more about just warning the employee of the risks that are here,” they concede. “But with some blue-collar jobs, you can. Some people have experimented with this in factory settings, using things like flex-time and paying people based on piece-rate … showing employees what the outcome is of their work.”

If you care about the physical and mental health of your employees however, this is hopefully food for thought.  The researchers next hope to apply their hypothesis throughout our career to see if there are fluctuations at particular stages, and even whether stress can be predicted as a result of their model.

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