Sarah Guminski

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, working age Americans spent more hours of their average day in 2014 doing work related activities than anything else. For many years, putting in long and untraditional hours was viewed as a positive reflection of American work ethic, but researchers have begun to question the effects of this overarching work culture on other areas of employees’ lives.

Joel Goh, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Stefanos A. Zenios recently published an article in The Behavioral Science & Policy Journal about the effects of workplace stressors on health outcomes. The researchers found that job insecurity is associated with an approximately 50 percent increase in the odds of self reporting poor health, that high demands from one’s job are associated with a 35 percent increase in the odds of having a physician-diagnosed illness, and that long work hours are associated with a 20 percent increase in mortality. If similar statistics were enough to demand heavy tobacco regulation in the United States, the researchers suggest that employers and lawmakers should address these alarming relationships as a threat to public health.

In their study, Goh et al. use meta-analysis, a method of pooling the results of relevant research, to summarize 228 workplace related health studies. Using odds ratios, they measure the effects of nine work conditions on four health outcomes: poor self-rated physical health, poor self-rated mental health, physician-diagnosed health conditions, and mortality. Among all four outcomes, at least three work conditions are correlated with worse health indicators than exposure to secondhand smoke.

The graphs below show how various work stressors compare to secondhand smoke, in terms of increasing the odds of reporting each of the four negative health outcomes mentioned earlier. Several workplace stressors increase the odds of experiencing these four negative health outcomes by a magnitude greater than or equal to secondhand smoke exposure. For example, work-family conflict increases the odds of self reporting poor physical and mental health by more than secondhand smoke exposure. For men and women together, exposure to secondhand smoke increases the odds of reporting poor physical health by 47 percent (an odds ratio of 1.47). Exposure to work-family conflict is associated with an odds ratio of 1.91 for women and 1.90 for men, implying that experiencing work-family conflict nearly doubles the odds of reporting poor physical health, relative to individuals who do not experience work-family conflict.

As the costs of healthcare grow, everyone is a stakeholder in health investment. In fact, healthcare costs are rising so persistently that they have outpaced the Consumer Price Index for the past decade, according to Forbes. For employers, taking preemptive action to mitigate the causes of poor health is a cost effective approach to minimizing healthcare expenditures. For the federal government, disproportionate spending on healthcare is cause for alarm in a country facing a mounting national budget deficit. According to the research, “The United States spends a higher proportion of its gross domestic product on healthcare than do other advanced industrialized economies, and about twice as much per capita as 15 other rich industrialized nations.”

For individuals, the burden of paying for healthcare can be suffocating. The researchers cite a study finding that 62 percent of all bankruptcies in 2007 were related to medical bills. Goh et al. reason that, if workplace stressors contribute to poor health, then they must also contribute to financial strain.

A possible point of caution when interpreting these meta-analysis results is that the research analyzes observational studies rather than randomized control trials. This presents an obstacle to establishing a strong causal inference between work conditions and health outcomes, but the link between work stressors and poor health is reason for concern, regardless of the direction of causality. The researchers advocate for the collection and analysis of additional data regarding this topic, on both a national and industry specific scale, to create a representative longitudinal data set. If improving health outcomes is a priority of policymakers and entrepreneurs, initiatives to reduce workplace stress should address individual behaviors and corporate cultures.

Article Source: Goh, Joel, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Stefanos A. Zenios. “Workplace Stressors & Health Outcomes: Health Policy for the Workplace,” The Behavioral Science & Policy, 1 No. 1 (2015).

Featured Photo: cc/(yanyong, photo ID: 71080299, from iStock by Getty Images)

This Article Originally Appeared: Chicago Policy Review