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Lack of control over high-stress jobs can lead to early grave

Academic research has found that having greater control over your job can help you manage work-related stress. But it’s never suggested that it was a matter of life and death — until now.

New research from the Indiana University Kelley School of Business in the US finds that those in high-stress jobs with little control over their workflow die younger or are less healthy than those who have more flexibility and discretion in their jobs and are able to set their own goals as part of their employment.

Using a longitudinal sample of 2,363 Wisconsin residents in their 60s over a seven-year period, they 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.

“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,” said Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, assistant professor of organisational behavior and human resources at the Kelley School and the paper’s lead author.

“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.”

The paper, “Worked to Death: The Relationships of Job Demands and Job Control With Mortality,” has been accepted for publication in the journal Personnel Psychology.

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

Gonzalez-Mulé said the paper’s results do not suggest that employers necessarily need to cut back on what is expected from employees. 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 said, also 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.”

Thus, micro-managing employees can have a public health impact. Among people in the study’s sample, the researchers also found that the same set of causal relationships applied to their 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 said. “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; at 55 percent, cancer was the leading cause of death of those in the paper’s sample. Other leading causes of death were 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.

“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 said. “Interestingly, we found a really low rate of death among agricultural workers.”

Gonzalez-Mulé said the new study highlights the benefits of job crafting, a relatively new process that enables employees to mold and redesign their job to make it more meaningful. Other research suggests that 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 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,” he said. “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.”

Their study also found 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 said. “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 in the study was obtained 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 time 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.

Gonzalez-Mulé and Cockburn only included those who were not retired in 2004 and who responded to questions about job demands and job control, and then followed up on their responses to questions in 2011. They employed rigorous controls for factors such as demographic characteristics, socioeconomic status and affect.

Gonzalez-Mulé wonders if younger workers are better able to cope with demanding jobs, regardless of the level of control, than workers at the end of their careers. Future research could follow people at an earlier point in their careers to see if the Job Demands-Control Model accurately predicts strain over time.

Story Source: Science Daily

Journal Reference:

  1. Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, Bethany Cockburn. Worked To Death: The Relationships of Job Demands and Job Control With Mortality. Personnel Psychology, 2016; DOI: 10.1111/peps.12206

Want a happy office? Here’s what you need to know

Steve Bloom, University of Denver and Matt Bloom, University of Notre Dame

Well-being at work is a prerequisite for flourishing in life. Most of us have some type of employment, if not a full-time job, and we spend the majority of our waking hours engaged in this work. Therefore the impact these hours have on our souls is of utmost importance to living a full and happy life.

So what is it that people really want and need out of work? What are the factors that make one productive and happy?

Money isn’t the right answer, even if it is part of what gets us out of bed and on our way to the office. After the first few paychecks, we begin seeking something else, something more. Of course we want to labor alongside good people, do quality work and get that sense of accomplishment that is uniquely tied to a job well done. Yet a recent Gallup study showed that 80% of workers still don’t like what they do each day. Clearly, there’s something else we want from the half (or more) of the day we spend at the office.

Research shows part of the answer comes down to relationships, engagement and authenticity.

The importance of relationships

Relationships with coworkers and customers are a key outcome of work. In fact for some, relationships are a work objective. As part of our ongoing longitudinal research we found that professionals who lack vital connections to co-workers faced significant challenges to sustained well-being. This research also indicated that professionals are much more likely to flourish if they have strong relationships with their customers and clients as well.

In order to be well, we need healthy relationships, including at work. Nevertheless, the norms of many office environments discourage friendships among colleagues, particularly among supervisors and subordinates. We need to address the inherent friction created by human beings’ common need for meaningful relationships with the prevailing attitude in the workplace that human interaction be reduced to an arms-length or quid pro quo association. One solution is for companies to relax their views on workplace relationships and see them as powerful tools for collaboration instead of potential distractions.

Engagement and authenticity

Among the most powerful and potent ideas that are emerging from the field of employee well-being and our own research are the concepts of engagement and authenticity at work. Clearly, people are at their most productive, creative and resilient when they are able to be fully engaged in what they’re doing and express themselves fully in their work.

Understanding the concept of engagement begins by recognizing that, over the course of a day, people are constantly bringing in and leaving out various depths of themselves as they work. That is, people can use varying levels and dimensions of their physical, emotional, spiritual and cognitive resources in the way they enact roles, perform activities or fulfill responsibilities.

When people are able to bring their fullest and best selves, their performance is more dynamic and work is more gratifying and fulfilling. But when employees are less than fully present – and instead focused on some other task, such as day dreaming or texting – their work experience suffers. An environment that doesn’t energize and fulfill translates into less inspired performance.

Authenticity refers to being one’s true self. It bears a strong connection to engagement, but encompasses being able to enact one’s deeply held values and strongest beliefs — especially those beliefs related to transcendence, spirituality or religiosity. Being fully authentic requires that we be true to ourselves, expressing those most important, even sacred, dimensions that are our essence.

What companies can do: a case study

While engagement at work has become a focus for many organisations, authenticity appears less well understood by business leaders. This is likely because the notion of authenticity in the workplace is somewhat new and hasn’t been well publicized. Yet, if workers hold part of themselves back, their performance and energy will suffer. As a result, organizations need to find ways to change this.

Here’s one example.

In 2004, a Fortune 500 company faced the need to reduce turnover among its 3,000 Customer Service Representatives (CSR). These CSRs worked in five large call centers where annualized attrition hovered at around 50%. Critical to the health care company’s business strategy was having CSRs with a full command of the firm’s complex products and offerings. CSR training lasted six weeks, but this was only the beginning.

The company’s internal studies showed the job had a steep learning curve. It took 6 to 18 months for a CSR to become competent. However, there was still much to learn, and CSRs didn’t fully master their jobs until they had 4 or 5 years of experience. The data pointed to a clear need to retain CSRs for 5+ years in order not to lose all of that precious experience — a difficult tenure goal for the call center industry.

One of us was an HR executive at the company at the time, and together we crafted a multi-pronged program that, among other things, involved showing the employees how critical they were to its success; offering more training and advancement opportunities tailored to their strengths; and connecting their personal values to their jobs and customers.

As a result, turnover dropped nearly 50% as work experience improved and employee satisfaction jumped.

It all comes down to execution

What the company did isn’t terribly innovative or complex; any organization could develop similar practices aimed at increasing employee loyalty, satisfaction and retention.

What is difficult, however, is the execution. The executives at this company were relentless in their support of and personal involvement in the daily administration of these programs, and continued their commitment as years passed. For example, whenever executives visited the call centers, they took part in raucous recognition events, where they handed out rewards and hugs. Persistent execution was the difference between lip service and world-class results.

Clearly the old notions of fair pay and a reasonably satisfying job are not enough to lead to well-being in the workplace. And while there are a myriad of things we need and want from work, our research suggests there are three critical elements:

  1. The ability to learn, grow and be challenged by our work.
  2. High levels of engagement, in part driven by the use of personal strengths.
  3. A work environment that allows us to be authentic and enact our core values.

These three factors lead to optimal performance and well-being. If accompanied by a reasonable paycheck and good folks to work with, this likely represents what most of us want and need from work.

Steve Bloom, Executive-in-Residence, Daniels College of Business, University of Denver and Matt Bloom, Associate Professor, University of Notre Dame

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Time To Stand Up – Hazards of Sedentary Work

Time To Stand Up – Hazards of Sedentary Work

A new report from Safe Work Australia has highlighted the hazards of sedentary work.

Overall exposure to sedentary behaviour (especially prolonged, unbroken sitting time) is associated with a range of poor health outcomes, including musculoskeletal problems, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, some cancers and premature mortality.

The majority of these associations remain even after allowing for the impact of physical inactivity, thereby highlighting that sedentary behaviour and physical inactivity need to be considered as separate health hazards.

While most of the evidence to date relates to the health effects of overall sedentary behaviour, a high proportion of workers are exposed to prolonged sitting at work and there is a growing amount of evidence on adverse health effects associated with sedentary work. Sedentary work may occur in both office-based occupations as well as other occupations which may have less scope for changed postures, such as call centre staff, crane operators and truck drivers.

Sedentary behaviour is conceptually different from ‘physical inactivity’, which is the lack of sufficient moderate/vigorous intensity physical activity. The report does not include any of the numerous public health initiatives around physical inactivity or obesity.

Sedentary behaviour can take place in transport, leisure, domestic and occupational domains, and refers to ‘any waking behaviour characterized by an energy expenditure ≤1.5 metabolic equivalent of task (METs), i.e. the energy expended for an activity while in a sitting or reclining posture’. In the report, the role of the employer is limited to that of occupational exposure, and does not cover personal lifestyle choices or sedentary behaviour outside work.

How harm arises from sedentary work

The harm associated with prolonged occupational sitting is likely due to insufficient dynamic muscle activity, insufficient energy expenditure, insufficient movement, lack of postural variety, and diminished gravitational resistance.

What is considered excessive work related exposure?

Occupational sitting is common among workers, with one half of workers reporting sitting often or all of the time at work. Exposure to occupational sitting occurs across different industries and occupations.

There is no clear definition of excessive occupational sitting exposure. However, sitting for longer than 30 minutes without a mini-break, and sitting all day at work (being “too busy” to take a break) are likely to be detrimental to health. To date, assessment of occupational exposure has largely been focussed on office work environments, with limited evidence for exposure or interventions in non-office environments.

Ways to reduce prolonged sitting at work

A range of initiatives has been proposed to reduce prolonged sitting at work, including those focused on the design of safe work systems via the work environment (physical and psychosocial), work tasks, work tools and the individual worker. Multi-component interventions targeting multiple elements of work systems appear to have been most successful.

Good job design can use substitution and breaks to minimise the harm from excessive sitting at work. Safe Work Australia recently published a handbook on the Principles of Good Work Design. It contains 10 principles which demonstrate how to achieve good design of work and work processes, which are all general in nature so they can be applied to any workplace.

Simple interventions can interrupt prolonged occupational sitting by substituting sitting with non-sedentary tasks, such as switching to work on a computer at a standing workstation, standing to read a document, having a standing or walking meeting, standing while talking on the phone, or walking to deliver a message to a colleague rather than emailing. In essence, employers and workers should aim for small and frequent changes from sitting as much as possible and less time sitting in total.


Available evidence suggests that prolonged sitting is common in Australian workplaces. Prolonged sitting is associated with significant negative health outcomes, and is increasingly being recognised in the community as an important issue that needs attention. There have been a number of initiatives that have demonstrated some success in reducing occupational sitting exposure in some industries and occupations.

Download the full report and literature review here:
Sedentary Work – Evidence on an Emergent Work Health and Safety Issue


Source: Safe Work Australia