It’s true, working too hard can kill you

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CNV00004_1It seems a life-time ago when stress management courses were de rigueur and people, including me, were making a living from them. (Now it’s either resilience training or mindfulness but that’s another story).

There was plenty of research about to back up what we were doing. The famous Whitehall studies which showed that the more senior you were the less likely you were to die early. In industry after industry it was the same story. Employees at the bottom of the hierarchy suffered more ill-health than more senior ones.

One of the factors contributing to this was the amount of control people had – over decision-making and the way they spent their working day. The more control or autonomy people felt they had, the less stressed they tended to be.

Now a recent study in the US has confirmed once again that people in stressful jobs with little control at work were more likely to die.

The research followed more than 2,000 Americans in their sixties over a seven-year period.

Those in low demand jobs reduced their death risk by 15% and those who were able to set their own goals and had flexibility at work were 34% less likely to die.

They also found that the people in the higher risk jobs were heavier. Comfort eating? Less time for exercise?

26% of those who dies were in front-line service jobs and 32% worked in manufacturing – both sectors with high demand and low autonomy.

55% of the deaths were from cancer (linked this week with high levels of anxiety and depression), and 22% from circulatory system diseases.

Erik Gonzales-Mulé at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University said employers didn’t need to reduce demand on their workers but should allow them more flexibility in how jobs were done. “You can avoid the negative health consequences if you allow them to set their own goals. set their own schedules, prioritise their decision-making and the like”.

I’m having deja vu here.This is like re-inventing the wheel. We knew all this decades ago. Remember autonomous working groups? Have American businesses forgotten about US contributions to organisational psychology and research on motivation? In America most workers still don’t get sick pay or maternity pay and have minimal holidays.

Japan has its own problems with employees working too hard (see recent post)

And we aren’t much better in some respects in the UK with the worst sick pay in the EU!

Recently experts and members of parliament have expressed concern about working conditions in call centres and on-line distribution centres. Sports Direct and Asos have been criticised for having Victorian working conditions. Some of these places are like “warehouses” on the edge of towns with no windows for natural light, just like giant container units.

Perhaps I should brush off my old notes and get back on the road again. Why do businesses never learn how to get the best out of people?

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