‘This job’s killin me’: too true, too often


YOGA CLASSES AREN’T GONNA DO IT. The stress at work is still gonna get ya—and even kill ya—way too often. Proof of this is all laid out in a new book by Stanford University professor Jeffrey Pfeffer.

Pfeffer’s book, Dying for a Paycheck, takes a deeper look at research that pointed to  working conditions as the cause of more than 120,000 excess deaths a year in the USA.

Pfeffer’s analysis lead him to conclude: companies need to focus more on things like layoffs, job insecurity, toxic cultures, long hours and other management practices that lead to substantial health issues, instead of adding wellness programs or yoga classes to help employees cope with their bad “lifestyle habits”.

He points out over-eating, over-drinking, over-smoking, under-exercising and drug use are directly linked to life on the job. What needs to be fixed are the underlying work conditions—not the workers.

“If I change the workplace so you didn’t do that stuff in the first place, you wouldn’t need a wellness program,” says Pfeffer.

The study found the lack of health insurance had the biggest impact on physician-diagnosed mortality, while work-life conflict greatly affected people’s mental and physical health in self-reporting.

Overall Pfeffer and his team isolated 10 “workplace conditions” as the primary contributors to stress on the job.


( Listed from most to least impact )

  • No health  insurance
  • Shift work
  • Long hours
  • Job insecurity
  • Work family conflict
  • Low job control
  • High job demands
  • Low social support
  • Organizational injustice

Job insecurity increased the odds of reporting poor health by 50%, while long work hours increased mortality by almost 20%. Additionally, highly demanding jobs raised the odds of a physician-diagnosed illness by 35%.

The ramifications for the uninsured should come as no surprise, Pfeffer says, but what did surprise the team was the high impact of psychological stressors. Work-family conflict and work injustice had just as much impact on health as long work hours or shift work.

Workers who reported that their work demands prevented them from meeting their family obligations or vice versa were 90% more likely to self-report poor physical health, the researchers note.

Workers who perceive their workplaces as being unfair are about 50% more likely to develop a physician-diagnosed condition.

The study attributes 120,000 excess deaths per year to these ten workplace conditions. That makes the workplace the fifth leading cause of death in the U.S.­—higher than Alzheimer’s, higher than kidney disease.

No great mystery

Pfeffer points out all he has done is bring the obvious into sharp focus. There is no mystery. The data are there and the tools to measure workplace conditions exist. What is missing is the will to do it.

“There are validated scales for all of this,” says Pfeffer. “It’s not hard to measure hours. It’s not hard to measure shift work. It’s not hard to measure work-family conflict. It’s very easy to measure whether you have health insurance or not.

“In the U.S. no agency does the same thing that we’ve done for water pollution, air pollution or infectious disease, which is to measure the harm—the toll—of the workplace on human health. If I can measure the effect of physical pollution on health, I can measure the effect of 10 workplace practices.

“If we wanted to regulate it, we could regulate it.”

Improving the work environment is not a Herculean feat, Pfeffer says.

Companies need to get serious about creating a workplace where people feel valued, trusted, and respected, where they are engaged in their work, don’t worry about losing their jobs, and where they can get home in time for family dinner, he says.

“My meta point is that we have lost focus on human well-being. It’s all about costs now. Can we afford this, can we afford that? Does it lead to better or worse financial performance for the company?” Pfeffer says.

“We’re talking about human beings and the quality of their lives. To me, that ought to get some attention.”

More of us find it hard not to despair

The 2012 “National Study on Balancing Work and Caregiving in Canada,” reports on the (ever-worsening) work-life imbalance of thousands of individual workers. Among its findings the study found: "Almost two-thirds of us are working more than 45 hours a week—50 per cent more than two decades ago. Work weeks are more rigid, with flex-time arrangements dropping by a third in the past 10 years.... More than half of the survey’s respondents took work home with them, putting in an average of seven extra hours a week from home. To top it off, only 23 per cent of working Canadians are highly satisfied with life. That’s half as many as in 1991.”

A report, by economists Anne Case and Sir Angus Deaton (winner of the 2015 Nobel Prize for economics), talks about “deaths of despair” among workers in the USA.

According to Dr. Case: “This doesn’t seem to be just about income. This is about accumulating despair for these people.”

The numbers are hard to credit: “In 1999 white men and women aged 50-54 with a high school education had a mortality rate 30 per cent lower than Black Americans.  In 2015 it was 30 per cent higher.”

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