Mapping Workplace Gremlins to Health, Costs, and Mortality

By | May 12, 2015
Man working overtime possibly linked to illness and cost

Photo courtesy of Adam Foster. http://ow.ly/MKMke

The workplace gremlins that threaten employee health include long work hours, job insecurity, low job control, high job demands, unemployment, shift work, work-family conflict, inadequate workplace social support, and unfair treatment. These can be bucketed in various ways, but whatever you call them, they are the work conditions — controllable by employers — that research has consistently shown to influence employee health and well-being.

Now, along comes a study out of Stanford University that not only endeavors to quantify the burden — in terms of health outcomes, cost, and mortality — of these gremlins (what the researchers called “stressors” and I sometimes refer to as the determinants of workplace health), but also puts it into context relative to other, more commonly recognized, health issues.

Spoiler alert: More than 120,000 deaths per year and approximately 5% to 8% of annual healthcare costs may be attributable to how U.S. companies manage their workforce, according to this analysis. The mortality rate for these stressors, plus another the researchers found to have significant impact — lack of health insurance — was on par with the fourth and fifth largest causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease and accidents. It was greater than mortality resulting from diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or influenza.

Exposure to the following stressors was found to be more harmful than secondhand tobacco smoke:

  • Lack of health insurance
  • Low organizational justice (fairness)
  • High job demands
  • Shift work
  • Unemployment

And — again, using secondhand smoke as a benchmark — the conditions that had a greater affect on mortality are:

  • Low job control
  • Unemployment
  • Long work hours
  • Lack of health insurance
  • Work-family conflict

Consistent with the fundamental premise of this Health Shifting blog — that an employer’s clearest path to employee health enhancement is via changing the workplace rather than the worker — the Stanford researchers concluded,

Employers may not make appropriate decisions concerning workplace management if they are unaware of the link between management decisions and employee health and healthcare costs. Our analysis suggests that for such organizations, paying attention to the structure of the workplace and the associated job stressors experienced by their employees may be a fruitful way to reduce unnecessary healthcare costs.

But they acknowledge that employers may have limited motivation to address these issues if, indeed, they’re not on the hook for the costs of health care — for example, in the cases of employees who have been laid off or who are not offered health insurance. The study didn’t delve into associations between stress and productivity.

The analysis was conducted by Joel Goh, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Stefanos A. Zenios and published in Management Science. Goh is now on the faculty of Harvard Business School.

The researchers are conservative yet insightful in their expectations regarding the implications of the their work:

While we stop short of claiming that employer decisions have a definite effect on these outcomes and costs, denying the possibility of an effect is not prudent either. Analyzing how employers affect health outcomes and costs through the workplace decisions they make is incredibly important if we are to more fully understand the landscape of health and well-being.

And what of our current approach to employee well-being, with its slaphappy embrace of screenings, health risk assessments, health coaching, apps, wearables and incentives? How does it jibe with the real determinants of worker health? Not very well, according to study co-author Jeffrey Pfeffer. In his YouTube interview for the Stanford Graduate School of Business, he says,

Employers worry mostly about individual decisions: eating, exercise, smoking, drinking…things like that. Or about policy issues like how we pay for health care. A lot of their excess health care costs come from what happens to people every day in the work environment… Things that employers could fix, if they wanted to.

Read Dr. Pfeffer’s summary of this research in the Fortune article, “Is Your Employer Killing You?