A team of researchers from the Harvard and Stanford business schools suggest in a new study that perhaps the most effective thing companies can do to improve worker health is to adopt better management practices.
Specifically, employers need to stop stressing their employees out.
“We find that job insecurity increases the odds of reporting poor health by about 50 percent, high job demands raise the odds of having a physician-diagnosed illness by 35 percent, and long work hours increase mortality by almost 20 percent,” concluded the study, which was authored by Joel Goh of Harvard and Jeffrey Pfeffer and Stefanos Zenios of Stanford.
Still, some jobs will be stressful no matter how much the boss tries to accommodate workers.
But the study identified, for instance, that the workplace phenomenon most likely to induce negative health outcomes was work-family conflicts, which can often be addressed by introducing flexible scheduling. An increasing number of employers have recognized that allowing employees to choose their own hours produces happier workers and does not jeopardize productivity.
Unfortunately, there likely are not any easy solutions for the other common stressors found in the workplace.
While unions and some public officials would urge for stronger job protections to assuage employee fears of losing their jobs, employers typically bristle at any proposal to make hiring and firing harder.
There is also no simple solution to ensure “organizational justice,” so that employees perceive the workplace as fundamentally fair. The belief that favoritism or nepotism is guiding the employer can have a devastating effect on employee morale and likely induce negative health outcomes, yet employers are often oblivious to such perceptions.
The authors, rather than proposing a number of specific policies for employers or government, instead urge for more research on workplace stress and its effect on employee health.
Al Lewis, who founded Quizzify, a self-described health care education company, and has been a prominent critic of corporate wellness programs, applauded the study, despite calling the results “self-evident.”
That said, he noted that the study won’t have much impact because wellness vendors won’t be able to turn a profit on programs that put the impetus on employers to treat workers better.
“If widely read and internalized, ‘pry, poke and prod’ programs would wither,” he said.