Workplace Culture

Many Workplaces Failing Stress Test

By Rita Pyrillis

Apr. 20, 2015

When it comes to improving employee health, most efforts focus on promoting healthy eating, exercise, disease prevention and the like, but the effect of job stress on well-being is often overlooked.

Yet one recent study showed that work-related health problems such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease and depression often exacerbated by on-the-job stress can lead to fatal conditions that kill about 120,000 people in the United States each year — causing more deaths than diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease or influenza.

“Everyone is talking about health costs, but there wasn’t a sense that management decisions were viewed as important,” said Joel Goh, the lead author and an associate professor of business at Harvard Business School. “Wellness programs are important, but workplace stress needs to be part of the discussion.”

The 2015 report from Harvard and Stanford universities’ business schools examined 10 common job stressors, including lack of health insurance, job insecurity, long hours, demanding work with little autonomy and the perception of an unfair workplace. They found that between 5 and 8 percent of annual health care costs can be attributed to how U.S. companies manage their workforce.

Lack of health insurance is particularly detrimental to both costs and mortality caused by delaying treatment for potentially serious medical problems, Goh said.

The good news is that employers can take steps to create a healthier workplace by being mindful of workloads and family-friendly policies like telecommuting and paid sick days, he said. However, the study cautions that, “Employers may not make appropriate decisions concerning workplace management if they are unaware of the link between management decisions and employee health and health care costs.

“People spend a lot of their waking hours at work,” the study said. “It is, therefore, scarcely surprising that the work environments created by employer decisions can have profound effects on mental and physical well-being and, consequently, morbidity, mortality and health care costs.”

Rita Pyrillis is a writer based in the Chicago area.

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