Killing Us Softly: The Deadly Impact of Work-Related Stress

February 3, 2015 • 8 minute read • by Saeed


“It is not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.”

-Hans Selye-

The nature of work is changing at a whirlwind pace and stress related illness is a serious menace for people in the work force.

Not only have hours worked per week been steadily on the rise for decades, but the ‘always on’ connectivity and rapid development of new technology seems to be irreversibly driving the trend towards obliterating what thinly veiled boundaries remain. A recent Pew survey found that 35 percent of adults say the Internet, email and mobile phones have increased their hours worked. For office workers, the number rises to 47 percent.

This is the new normal: our digital life is here to stay.

Meanwhile, there is a wealth of scientific data on work-related stress, its causes and effects, and on some of the mechanisms underpinning the relationships among these. More general research is not needed. Numerous studies, for example, show that job stress is far and away the major source of stress-related illness for American adults. What is needed however, is for this research to be translated into policy and practice, and the effectiveness of the practice to be evaluated. What is required is a better understanding of the more specific questions about particular aspects of the overall stress process and its underpinning mechanisms.

Work vs. Life

The concept of a work-leisure dichotomy first surfaced in the mid-1800s while the more modern expression ‘work–life balance,’ was first used in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s and in the United States in the mid 1980s.

Despite progress in implementing so called ‘work-life balance’ programs, stress-related illness remains a serious concern and health risk in the workplace. In recent studies, The American Institute of Stress found that 80% of workers feel stress on the job but only 20% cited the juggling of work/personal lives as the reason for their stress. The majority cited workload (46%) and people issues (28%) as the source of their stress.

For U.S. workers, the 40-hour, five-day work week became the standard in 1938. Ever since, Americans have been steadily increasing their work hours. Nearly half of U.S. workers today say they routinely put in more than 50 hours on the job each week, often without overtime pay. In fact, U.S. workers put in more hours on the job than the labor force of any other industrial nation, including Germany, the number one economy in Europe and Japan, where death from overwork has a name:karōshi.

The first case of karōshi was reported in 1969 with the stroke-related death of a 29-year-old Japanese worker. It became a full-fledged phenomenon in the 1980s when several high-ranking business execs who were still in their prime suddenly keeled over without any previous sign of illness.

Encouraged by always-on gadgets, so-called “work martyrs” on both sides of the Atlantic give hundreds of hours in free labor to their employers every year – working through nights, weekends, and vacations (and in the case of parents, their children’s most precious years).

More Work ≠ More Productivity

The irony is that more work does not lead to more productivity. Research that attempts to quantify the relationship between hours worked and productivity has found that employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour work-week, and falls off a cliff after 55 hours—so much so that someone who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those extra 15 hours, according to a study published last year by John Pencavel of Stanford University. Longer hours have also been connected to absenteeism and employee turnover, which cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Stress is a highly personalized phenomenon and can vary widely even in identical situations for different reasons. One survey showed that having to complete paper work was more stressful for many police officers than the dangers associated with pursuing criminals.

The severity of job stress depends on the magnitude of the demands that are being made and the individual’s sense of control or decision-making latitude he or she has in dealing with them. Scientific studies based on this model confirm that workers who perceive they are subjected to high demands but have little control are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, hypertension and other disorders.

It appears then that coping is really an attempt to establish perceived control and that employers would do well to involve their workers in greater levels of decision making and autonomy. Not surprisingly, when they do, productivity levels increase.

Towards More Progressive Workplace Policy

Meanwhile, workplace policies are taking a schizophrenic turn. On the one hand, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s 2013 decision not to allow employees to work from home seemed regressive to many, while on the other, the world’s second richest man Carlos Slim more recently suggested that workers should shift to a three-day work week (with the caveat that we would put in 11-hour work days and stay on the job until age 70 or 75).

Surprisingly, a 2008 survey of workers by the Families and Work Institute found that 46% of those offered the option of a compressed week declined it most of the time.

The strategic argument for the management of work-related stress is that work stress is a current and future health and safety issue, and, as such, should be dealt with in the same logical and systematic way as other health and safety issues. That is, the management of stress at work is and should be a serious policy consideration.

It has famously been said that Europeans ‘work to live’ while Americans ‘live to work.’ However, even in comparatively laid back Europe, things may be changing to keep pace with international markets. It appears that in addition to our cultural exports of such value as the Kardashians, we are also exporting our die hard work ethic. What we need is a recalibration of that ethic whose limits placed on professional hours worked and personal hours sacrificed seem to know no bounds.

Meanwhile, the Taiwanese media recently cited a case of karōshi of an engineer who was reported to have been working 16-19 hour days.

These cases should be a wake-up call that the cure for our overworked culture will not be settled inside the laboratory but rather inside the Board rooms of America’s most influential companies who must establish progressive policy and common practice while developing consensus that the balance of American life is tilted dangerously, but not productively, in favor of work.

Good luck.

©2014 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

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