Your Stressful Job is Literally Killing You


Workplace stress kills 120,000 Americans annually and adds $190 billon dollars to the nation’s health care costs each year. These are the findings of a study conducted at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Prior research has found links to stress at work and heart disease, long working hours and increased stroke risk, and work-related stress and the onset of type 2 diabetes. The Stanford study analyzed information from 228 studies on workplace stressors to get an estimate of the effects and costs overall of workplace stress on the population.

What is killing us?

“We understand that people’s minds affect their bodies, and stress is, of course, a mental state and a mental attitude, so in some sense,” says co-author Jeffrey Pfeffer, “it’s not that surprising that things that make us stressed, nervous, anxious, feel out of control would have an enormous physiological impact.” What are the deadliest stressors? The study attributes 49,000 deaths a year to a lack of health insurance. This stressor is a one-two punch, creating the stresses of financial insecurity and limited access to health care. Layoffs, economic insecurity and low job control are next in line as killer stressors.

What doesn’t kill us still can make us sick

Co-author Stefanos A Zenios says, “The deaths are comparable to the fourth- and fifth-largest causes of death in the country — heart disease and accidents …It’s more than deaths from diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or influenza.” Yet even more are made ill by their jobs. Working long hours (seven or more days in a row of working extra time), shift-work, having work-family conflicts and demanding jobs increases the odds an employee will be physician diagnosed with some type of illness.

What can employees do to protect their health at work?

“Employees need to understand going to places where they experience work-family conflict, shift work, long work hours, economic insecurity, and don’t get access to health insurance, that is more than just something that’s inconvenient,” says Pfeffer. “This is something that actually affects their well-being in deep and profound ways, and they ought to take these factors into account as they select their jobs.”

Pfeffer believes employers could fix this problem, but have no incentive to do so. He suggests that public policy focus on regulations that would require employers pay the excessive health care costs created by their unhealthy work environments. Pfeffer considers workplace stress a “social pollution.” The Environmental Protection Agency began penalizing businesses that polluted the air and water decades ago; businesses also should be held accountable when they profit while their employees become sick and die early in their toxic work places.