It 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?
Economic researchers in Japan (where there is a culture of long hours and karoshi – death by overwork) analysed the employment habits and cognitive test results of 3,000 men and 3,500 women above the age of 40 in Australia, including retired and unemployed people.
They found that a part-time job is the best balance between keeping the brain stimulated and becoming completely exhausted through stress.
People who worked about 25 hours a week tended to get the best scores. Those who didn’t work at all scored about 20% lower on the series of tests (reading, numbers and patterns).
Working 40 hours a week was linked to a slightly smaller cognitive deficit but working 55 hours or more was worse than being retired or unemployed.
Working over 50-55 hours is known to cause heart problems in men in particular and an increase in error rates and accidents. The Whitehall study of 10,000 civil servants also found that people who worked working 55 hours a week did worse on cognitive tests than those who kept to 40 hours. Despite this body of knowledge the UK government still opted out of the European Working Time Directive.
Many countries have extended or scrapped the state retirement age and many people face the prospect of working into their 70s. Finnish experts have already warned that people may not be physically or mentally capable of sustaining the effort required to continue in their jobs.
Some companies , like BMW, have invested in modifying the workplace to cater for older employees but they are probably an exception.
Marianna Virtanen, a Finnish Occupational Health expert (they are hot on OH in Finland) who led the Whitehall studies in the mid-80s said that the new research seemed to show tat “Middle-aged and older people should limit their working hours to keep their cognitive capacity fit“.
She did wonder whether a long working week caused a drop in cognitive ability or whether a drop in cognitive ability led to people working longer hours to compensate. She conceded however that “In certain jobs where there is a lot of intense focus and concentration is needed, working long hours may be more exhausting to cognition“.