A recent 2015 study, led by Joel Goh of Harvard Business School, published in Behavioral Science & Policy, outlines a few solutions companies can take to begin thinking more clearly about employee wellbeing. Goh and his co-authors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Stefanos Zenios, both of the Stanford GSB, argue that so many wellness interventions fail because they overlook the root cause of employee stress: context. In this view, free gym memberships and yoga class are a nice idea but not the solution. If businesses are serious about employing healthy workers, then they must first maintain a healthy work environment.
Although previous studies have documented how stress adversely affects performance at work, the magnitude of this effect is not known. Goh and colleagues gathered hundreds of previous studies and quantified the evidence measuring workplace stress and health. The authors identified working conditions known to undermine wellbeing, such as long hours and work-family conflict, as well as conditions known to increase wellbeing, such as social support and availability of health insurance.
The results are nothing short of shocking. Across various metrics, including self-rated physical health and actual mortality, Goh and his colleagues found that higher levels of workplace stress lead to significantly worse health outcomes. For example, employees who report higher levels of work-family are more likely to report poor physical health compared to employees with lower levels of work-family conflict. As a comparison, that difference is twice as large as the impact second-hand smoke has on the same measure of health. If smoking warrants federal regulation, such as bans on smoking in enclosed public places, shouldn’t businesses consider regulating stress?
Goh and his colleagues think so. One solution is eliminating workplace practices that most contribute to workplace-induced stress. The researchers recommend, “Limiting work hours, reducing shift work and unpredictable working hours, and encouraging flexible work arrangements that help employees to achieve a better balance between their work life and their family life.”