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Workplace-induced stress as bad for health as second-hand smoke

September 25, 2015

By Kristin Cifolelli, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE 

We have long known that stress can have a direct negative impact on an individual’s health. But a new study by researchers at Harvard Business School and Stanford University concludes that the effects of psychosocial workplace stressors can be as bad for an employee’s health as exposure to second-hand smoke. One implication of the study is that employer wellness programs, while effective as far as they go, do not target all the root causes of poor employee health, which are generated by the workplace itself.

The study, using meta-analysis, examined data from 228 other scientific studies and focused on 10 workplace factors that are presumed to impact health negatively.  Some of the work conditions studied included long working hours & shift work, work-family conflict, job control, and job demands.  Conditions that might lessen these effects were also studied. They included social support and social networking opportunities, perceived levels of workplace fairness (organizational justice), and availability of health insurance which affects access to health care and preventive screenings.  Lastly, the health effects of layoffs, job loss, unemployment and economic insecurity were also examined.

The study next focused on four outcomes typically used in studies of the health effects of the work environment: the presence of a diagnosed medical condition, a person’s perception of being in poor physical health, a person’s perception of having poor mental health, and death.

The results of the analysis show that workplace stressors generally increased the odds of poor health outcomes to approximately the same degree as exposure to secondhand smoke. The results of the study support the following conclusions:

  • Job insecurity increases the odds of reporting poor health by approximately 50%.
  • High job demands raise the odds of having a physician diagnosed illnesses by 35%.
  • Long work hours increase mortality by almost 20%.
  • Psychological and social aspects of the work environment (such as a lack of perceived fairness in the organization, low social support, work–family conflict, and low job control) are associated with health as strongly as more concrete aspects of the workplace, such as exposure to shift work, long work hours, and overtime.
  • The association between workplace stressors and health is strong in many instances. Work-family conflict increases the odds of self-­reported poor physical health by about 90%, and low organizational justice increases the odds of having a physician-­diagnosed condition by about 50%.

Many organizations these days support wellness programs for their employees and focus on issues such as reducing obesity, smoking cessation, biometric screenings and encouraging exercise.  According to the study, the challenge is that employer wellness programs are addressing negative health behaviors but are not getting to the root issues that are causing the health problems to begin – a significant contributor to which is workplace induced stress. 

According to Joel Goh, one of the study’s authors, “Wellness programs are great at doing what they’re designed to do, but they’re targeting [employee behavior], not targeting the cause of stress.   Looking carefully at how managers and workplace conditions create a stressful work environment should also be part of the discussion”, he says. “There are two sides of the equation and right now we focus on one side . . . We’re trying to call attention to the other side [of the equation], which is the effect of managerial practices.”

While no employer can completely eliminate stress and challenging work demands, often times there are reasonable changes that can be made to make the work environment more manageable.  Some of the best ways include asking managers to encourage and model stress relieving activities themselves such as taking frequent stretch/walking breaks away from the desk, encouraging good two-way communication, and being approachable and available to employees to discuss work demands. Other options employers might consider include job redesigns that could involve limiting working hours, reducing shift work and unpredictable hours and encouraging flexible work arrangements that help achieve better work/life balance.

Employers who truly want to maximize the return on their wellness programs may want to consider focusing on the work environment first.

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