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You Might Be Working Yourself to Death (Really)

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A lack of flexibility in high-stress jobs may literally be a matter of life and death, experts warn.

A new study shows that people with little control over their workflow are less healthy and even die at a younger age than those with more flexibility and discretion in their jobs who are able to set their own goals as part of their employment.

Researchers used a longitudinal sample of 2,363 Wisconsin residents in their 60s over a seven-year period and found that for individuals in low-control jobs, high job demands are associated with a 15.4 percent increase in the likelihood of death, compared to low job demands.

For those in high-control jobs, high job demands are associated with a 34 percent decrease in the likelihood of death compared to low job demands.

(Credit: woodleywonderworks/Flickr)

“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,” says Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources at the Kelley School at Indiana University.

“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.”

Don’t lower expectations

Studies exploring work factors associated with death are largely absent from the organizational psychology and management literatures. The authors of the new study in Personnel Psychology believe theirs is the first study in the management and applied psychology fields to examine the relationship between job characteristics and mortality.

The results don’t suggest that employers necessarily need to cut back on what is expected from employees, Gonzalez-Mulé says. Rather, they demonstrate the value in restructuring some jobs to provide employees with more say about how the work gets 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,” he says, further recommending that firms 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.”

So, micro-managing employees can have a public health impact. Among people in the study’s sample, the same set of causal relationships applied to body mass index. People in high-demand jobs with low control were heavier than those in high-demand jobs with high control.

“When you don’t have the necessary resources to deal with a demanding job, you do this other stuff,” Gonzalez-Mulé says. “You might eat more, you might smoke, you might engage in some of these things to cope with it.”

Cancer research studies have found a correlation between eating poorly and developing the disease; cancer, at 55 percent, was the leading cause of death of those in the paper’s sample. Other leading causes of death included circulatory system ailments, 22 percent; and respiratory system ailments, 8 percent.

The paper provides more reasons for those in stressful, dead-end jobs to refresh their resumes and look for other employment. Twenty-six percent of deaths occurred in people in frontline service jobs, and 32 percent of deaths occurred in people with manufacturing jobs who also reported high job demands and low control.

Job crafting

“What we found is that those people that are in entry-level service jobs and construction jobs have pretty high death rates, more so than people in professional jobs and office positions,” he says. “Interestingly, we found a really low rate of death among agricultural workers.”

The findings highlight the benefits of job crafting, a process that allows employees to mold and redesign their job to make it more meaningful. Workers who engage in job crafting are happier and are more productive than co-workers who don’t.

“In some settings, it will be difficult to do this. For a construction worker, it’s going to really be 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,” Gonzalez-Mulé says. “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.

“There’s a lot research that shows that people who have a social connection with the beneficiaries of their work are much more satisfied and have less stress in their jobs, with no change in the job itself.”

The study also finds that people with a higher degree of control over their work tend to find stress to be useful.

“Stressful jobs cause you to find ways to problem-solve and work through ways to get the work done. Having higher control gives you the resources you need to do that,” Gonzalez-Mulé says.

“A stressful job then, instead of being something debilitating, can be something that’s energizing. You’re able to set your own goals, you’re able to prioritize work. You can go about deciding how you’re going to get it done. That stress then becomes something you enjoy.”

Data came from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which followed more than 10,000 people who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. They were interviewed at various intervals over their lives through 2011, to provide data on educational, occupational, and emotional experiences. All participants in the study were employed but near the end of their careers.

This article was originally published in Futurity. Edits have been made to this republication. It has been republished under the Attribution 4.0 International license.

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