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Can workplace stress kill?

November 11, 2015

The current preoccupation of the HR community with engaging employees risks missing the critical truth that its obverse – workplace stress – is a major health risk. A recent review (by Jeffrey Pfeffer of the Stanford Business School) has found 230 studies which provide evidence that employees’ health risks from poor management and stressful job environment can affect them just as badly as more commonly recognised causes of early death. A fascinating interview with Pfeffer can be heard at Pfeffer comes up with the startling conclusion that workplace stress is the 5th leading cause of death in the USA, with 120,000 people dying prematurely. It’s highly likely that these figures could be extrapolated to the UK, Europe and elsewhere in the developed world.

So what sort of workplace stressors are we talking about?

Pfeffer lists lack of access to health insurance (a less serious issue in the UK and Europe), poor work / life balance, long hours (presenteeism included), lack of job control (autonomy) and perceptions of organisational injustice like unfair appointments and / or pay rises. A further issue for many people in today’s growing ‘gig economy’ is insecurity and irregular income from month to month. Uber is cited as a symptom where the goal of the organisation and the individuals who work for it are directly at odds. The business seeks to maximise the numbers of drivers whereas those at the wheel seek the opposite. Pfeffer (and others, see see this model of working life continuing to grow, and with it, anticipates even greater levels of stress and work-life imbalance, despite the advantages that can accrue to some freelance workers.


Well, this is where we come back to the whole question of employee engagement, both with work and the organisation. Particularly as it affects those who are less well paid. Highly paid people - who are often in short supply – can demand and are routinely given more control of their jobs and their lives. Whereas those lower down the pay / skill hierarchy often have far fewer choices. Pfeffer argues that the latter groups of employee need to be cared about more, because it is they who may well seek to relieve their stress by over and unhealthy eating, drinking too much and leading less healthy lifestyles as means of compensating for the pressures at work. So why not widen the choices and strive to limit the insecurities of the latter group? Difficult of course but modest investment in this area could become a powerful means to re-engage people with the goals of the organisation. Optimal engagement has long been seen by researchers as lying at one end of a continuum, with burnout and stress at the other. This research confirms that the consequences can be and for many could be fatal. No business or organisation can possibly afford to take this risk. Ultimately there can be no long term benefit from ignoring the need to engage people, especially using the simple remedies offered by Pfeffer, let alone the many more sophisticated approaches that are available to them. As a first step to assessing the scale of the problem in the UK we plan to refocus some regular engagement survey items to look in more depth at job control, uncertainty work life balance and employees’ health. Something we will be reporting on in the next few months.

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