Your Job Is Killing You. Seriously

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Apr 23, 2018

How often have you or your colleagues said, “This job is killing me”?

What you likely didn’t know was that you were right — the workplace is the fifth leading cause of death in the United States! (And the results aren’t much better anywhere else in the world.)

“I want to wake people up. This is a serious issue that has serious consequences for corporate performance and for people’s well-being. We should care about employees’ psychological and physical health, not just about profits,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “We are harming both company performance and individual well-being, and this needs to be the clarion call for us to stop. There is too much damage being done.”

21st century sweatshop

Pfeffer’s latest book, Dying for a Paycheck, certainly woke me up. It depicts a workplace that has become shockingly inhumane.

The book maps a range of ills in the modern workplace — from layoffs, stress, economic insecurity and the disappearance of good health insurance, to the psychological effects of long hours and work-family conflict — and examines the massive health care toll today’s work culture exacts on employees.

  • Job stress costs U.S. employers more than $300 billion annually
  • 61% of employees said that workplace stress had made them sick
  • 7% said they had actually been hospitalized for workplace stress
  • 50% had missed time at work because of stress
  • People are quitting their jobs because of stress
  • In the U.S., stress may cause 120,000 excess deaths each year
  • In China, 1 million people a year may be dying from overwork

Ironically and tragically, Pfeffer marshals a vast trove of evidence and numerous examples from all over the world to expose the infuriating truth about modern work life – even as organizations allow management practices that hurt employee engagement, increase turnover, and destroy people’s physical and emotional health, those policies don’t enhance productivity or the bottom line, thereby creating a lose-lose situation.

CEOs are the cause?

I was struck by a story in the book about Robert Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, standing in front of 1,000 other CEOs and saying, “You are the cause of the health care crisis.”

How did Chapman come to this shocking conclusion? The following data points led him to conclude that workplaces are the source of stress (and CEOs “own” what happens in their workplaces); stress causes chronic disease; and chronic disease is the biggest component of our ongoing and huge health expenses”

  • The World Economic Forum and other sources report that an enormous percentage of the health care cost burden in the developed world, and in particular in the U.S. (some estimates are 75%) comes from chronic disease — things like diabetes, cardiovascular and circulatory diseases.
  • There’s a tremendous amount of epidemiological literature that suggests that diabetes, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome — and many health-relevant individual behaviors such as overeating, under-exercising, and drug and alcohol abuse — are caused by stress.
  • A large amount of data that suggests our biggest source of stress is from our workplace.

Not surprisingly, when it comes to our health, the environment we work in is just as important as the one we live in.

Commit to workplace well-being

Leaders must wake up to the dangers and enormous costs of many of today’s workplaces. They need to make a concerted and sustained effort to reduce the level of stress in the workplace and create environments that are safe, calm and uplifting.

And this effort must venture beyond company wellness programs.

What can you in HR do to help reduce stress and improve the overall health of your workplace? Here’s help: “Trend In Wellness Is Toward Well-Being Programs,” “Good Managers Are Your Best Employee Wellness Strategy” and “How Smart Employers are Dealing With Employee Stress.”

Similar to the efforts to ferret out and eliminate workplace bullying, sexual harassment and gender inequality, stressful and toxic work environments can’t be tolerated any longer. There’s a real danger that to do otherwise could result in lawsuits and public organizational shaming.

Leaders would be wise to take steps now, before the problem becomes more pronounced, and harder and more expensive to resolve.