Latest study: How workplace stress can shorten employees’ lives

A recent study has found that stressful workplace conditions can affect mortality.

15 April 2016
by Meg de Jong

Your workplace conditions could have an impact on your life span, depending on your race and educational background, according to a study done last year by US researchers from Harvard Business School and Stanford University.

The study, which used data from the General Social Survey and the American Community Survey, found that workers in stressful workplaces are more likely to die early, although the level of effect differed depending on race and educational background.

The two greatest workplace stresses

The researchers surmised that people with different levels of education get sorted into jobs with different degrees of exposure to workplace attributes that contribute to poor health. These “stress” factors included probability of getting laid off, the length of working hours, and the option to have employer-provided health insurance, amongst others.

Unemployment and lack of health insurance were found to be the two greatest workplace stresses linked to a reduced lifespan.

The study concluded that 10 to 38 percent of the difference in life expectancy across demographic groups can be explained by the different job conditions their members experience. 

Low-income workers have higher job stress

Well-educated workers were less affected, with 10 percent of their mortality being associated with exposure to stressful workplace factors. For less educated workers, the effect was between 12 and 19 percent. On the whole, white people had the lowest loss in workplace expectancy as a result of workplace stress. 

HR practitioner Helen Westcott explains that although this trend may seem counter-intuitive at first, it actually stands to reason. “You’d imagine higher-paid executive type jobs to be very pressurised and, as a result, highly stressed, but in reality, the level of education and resulting ability to do the job, and support structure factors that these types of workers have generally tend to assist in reducing stress,” she explains.

She continues: “Lower paid workers, who have far less agency and are far less empowered, working longer hours, often commuting to work on unreliable public transport, and not earning very much money at all, are the people who suffer the most from the pressure and stress in their working environments. They have limited access to recreation and often earn nowhere near enough to support their families. They have limited control over their output, they're not very empowered in decision-making, and their job satisfaction is often quite low.”

The study’s authors echoed Westcott’s sentiments, urging “healthier psychosocial work environments, especially for jobs likely to be held by the most disadvantaged demographic groups.”


Read More: Stress Super Section