Think long working hours are killing you? You may be right.
A new study by researchers at Harvard and Stanford showed stressful workplaces are shaving years off American workers’ life spans, up to three years for some socio-economic groups.
The researchers examined 10 common workplace stressors including long working hours, absence of access to employer-provided health insurance, work and family conflict, economic insecurity due to layoffs and the absence of job control (the ability to control what you do at work and the pace at which you do it). These stressors are identified as environmental stressors, things that are the consequence of decisions made by employers.
The good news, says Jeffrey Pfeffer, business theorist and professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, who co-authored the study, is that each of these stressors are remediable by business owners.
While we all know workplace stress exists, Pfeffer says many of us are unaware of the extent to which workplace stress can impact our health. “These things are as harmful for mortality as second-hand smoke and they contribute to approximately 120,000 excess deaths annually just in the United States,” he says. Pfeffer says employers need to pay more careful attention to the way in which their workplaces induce stress and seek to find ways to reduce these stressors in order to improve employee health.
Unemployment caused by layoffs seemed to have the biggest impact on shortening life expectancy. “Some research shows even if you find another job there are some persistent effects of economic insecurity on health,” says Pfeffer. The loss of a job not only affects a worker’s access to health care and their ability to support themselves and their family, it also has an impact on their self-concept, triggering a sense of failure.
Pfeffer says companies are often too quick to lay off employees. “Layoffs are much more discretionary than companies believe they are,” he says.
Avoiding layoffs at the first sign of economic stress is one measure Pfeffer says companies can take to reduce employee stress and create a healthier working environment where people aren’t nervous every time they walk in the door that this may be their last day.
Work-family conflict is another stressful area that Pfeffer says employers can help to mitigate by implementing policies that provide flexibility to take care of elders, children and loved ones. Providing supports to help employees manage their non-work obligations can reduce stress on the job. Allowing employees the opportunity to find social support on the job is another great way to reduce workplace stress.
Hosting social events and building a strong culture that permits people to share their personal lives with one another is one way to improve social connections.
Pfeffer says long work hours was another major factor identified in the study that contributed to work stress. Employers can help mitigate this stress by avoiding overworking employees. This may necessitate a shift in the company’s philosophy on productivity. Rewarding long work hours, Pfeffer argues, is not the same as rewarding innovation and high levels of productivity. Focusing on results, rather than the number of hours someone has logged at their desk is one way to mitigate this common stressor.