Work is bad for you

by Isabel Wu

In 2009 researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, José A. Tapia Granados and Ana Diez Roux, released findings on their studies on the relationship between health and the economic growth.  Focusing on the years between 1920 and 1940, they found that population health generally improved during the four years of the Great Depression while during recessions in 1921 and 1938, mortality increased and life expectancy declined during periods of strong economic expansion such as 1923, 1926, 1929, and 1936-1937.

These results seem to counter the belief that prosperity increases life expectancy, particularly when other studies provide evidence that increased standard of living is a significant factor in longer life spans.  The US Congressional Budget Office figures of 2010 indicate that those born into the highest socioeconomic group will live, on average, 4.5 years longer than those born in the lowest socioeconomic group.  Since the introduction of social security benefits in the US in 1940, male life expectancy has increased 12.7 years, and for females it is 20.7 years.

Research from the Austrian Institute for Economic Research in 2008 concluded that people who lived on €5,000 per year had a 50 per cent higher mortality rate than those living on €17,000.    Longer periods of unemployment were related to a higher mortality risk.  For each additional month in unemployment a year, the mortality risk increased by 5.2 per cent compared with continuous employment.

Studies such as these lead us to understand that life expectancy can be prolonged by adequate levels, and security, of income.

What is it about prosperous times that reduces average life expectancy?

The University of Michigan study considered some of the possible causes across the population.  Economic expansion, such as China’s recent boom in manufacturing, increases atmospheric pollution that contributes to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.  They also considered the increased number of workers, particularly young and inexperienced people joining the workforce, would result in more untimely deaths.  Statistics in Australia bear out this theory: each year around 16 per cent of all deaths are work-related, with people between the ages of 25 and 34 over-represented in this number.  Increased levels of income also may contribute to risky lifestyle choices such as smoking, higher consumption of alcohol and drug use across society.

Firms going through growth and business abundance also operate markedly differently to during lean times.  Beyond the higher work pressures that come with increased demand, firms build management layers, which are typically the first casualty of a downturn.  The management layers change the nature of work to one where demands beyond product and service delivery must be satisfied.  Workers are also saddled with the need to ‘please the boss’, whatever form this may take: longer hours, working out the different expectations of different managers, new targets to be met, and feeding the various demands from the competing priorities within the organisation.

The hierarchy itself is a cause of stress for workers, aside from any inequities that may exist, numerous research shows that the existence of a hierarchy can create uncertainty that interferes with an individual’s ability to adapt to change.  A hierarchical system also reduces a worker’s real or perceived ability to control their work, work load, work hours and work atmosphere.  The persistent stress levels lead to poorer eating and sleep patterns and is a known risk factor for hypertension, diabetes, upper extremity musculoskeletal back problems, and cardiovascular disease.

Further exacerbating the problem, those who work long hours or who are stressed and burnt out find it difficult to establish and maintain the social support networks that are crucial to their psychological well-being.

Firms, with their highly developed structures and control mechanisms are literally shortening people’s lives.

The Austrian Institute for Economic Research study provides an interesting insight to how organisations can provide a healthier work environment.  In this study, the life expectancy between blue and white collar workers was compared.  Blue collar workers were found to have a 75.7 per cent chance of reaching the age of 70, while the probability of white collar workers living to 70 years was 84.4 per cent.  The white collar workers’ better life expectancy was a likely result of higher incomes providing more security, and enabled better lifestyles and health care.  White collar workers are also more likely to be better educated, are less likely to work in dangerous occupations, and hold positions in which they would be more likely to have some autonomy in their work.

What was interesting was when the results of a class of workers, ‘night workers doing heavy work’ was examined.  These are workers defined as those who perform ‘heavy labour’ meaning work carried out between the hours of 10PM and 6AM and has an arduous component, such as excessive heat and continuous loud noise.  In addition to being blue collar workers, shift work too is known to contribute to health disorders leading to shortened life expectancy, thus this group was expected to have the shortest life span of all, however they had the same life expectancy – 84.4 per cent – as white collar workers.

It seems that a number of factors lead to the reversal of a trend to shorter life spans for this group.

Under Austrian law, the heavy night workers have special protection.  The Night Shift Workers (employment on arduous work) Act was enacted to protect workers who face serious work strains and high health risks at work.   Under this law employees who work constantly under these conditions are entitled to additional holidays, specific rest periods, extra severance pay, special preventive health and safety measures, and particular pension payments (Sonderruhegeld) at the age of 57 years.  The required breaks and greater security are factors contributing to the better life expectancy.

Another factor that can be reasonably assumed to work in their favour, is that the type of work described is communal in nature.   Commonly, because of their unusual hours they often become part of each others’ social network, forming a greater camaraderie.   While day workers will dash off to their individual meals or use their break time to attend to chores, night workers have no access to outside facilities and bring their own meals with supervisors and workers taking their breaks gathered together.  Eating with others is known to have many positive outcomes.

There is evidence that suggests that shared meals and organisational performance are connected.  Sharing food promotes shared beliefs and solidifies group membership.  Anthropologists have found that the rituals surrounding eating binds people to their shared identity and creates powerful links between food and memory.  Organisational experts know often utilise the benefits of shared meals in their interventions to improve worker morale and company culture.

When times are good, organisations allow their goals to take precedence and they build a structure to facilitate this but by doing so, are literally working their people to death.  The solution may simply be to always operate as though times are lean; people know they are there because they are needed, not ‘fat’ waiting to be cut when tough conditions threaten.  Giving them, not a management hierarchy, control over their own jobs not only saves money but lives.