Is your workplace making you sick?

workersFor a few decades now, major employers across the United States have focused on providing wellness programs that encourage employees to adopt healthy lifestyle habits, such as nutritional eating, exercise and smoking cessation. This is based on the premise  that a healthy workforce will be more productive, and ultimately will help reduce health insurance costs.

But a new systematic review by researchers from Harvard and Stanford universities suggests that many employers are missing the mark. The review, published in the journal Management Science,  uses mathematical modeling in a meta-analysis to estimate the health care costs associated with ten workplace stressors: unemployment, lack of health insurance, exposure to shift work, long working hours, job insecurity, work-family conflict, low job control, high job demands, low social support at work, and low organizational justice.

Their analysis found that 120,000 deaths and $190 million in health care costs each year may be attributable to how U.S. companies manage their work force. In addition to providing a bottom-line cost, the analysis revealed some actions employers can take to improve workers’ health.

  • Not surprisingly, the lack of health insurance had the biggest impact on physician-diagnosed illness and mortality. Offering health insurance is the single-biggest step employers can take to improve workers’ health.
  • Psychological stressors ranked high among the factors associated with illness and death. Low organizational justice, or an unfair work environment, high job demands, and low job control were associated with some of the higher levels of doctor-reported illness and mortality.
  • Job insecurity increased the odds of reporting poor health by 50 percent.
  • Long work hours increased mortality by almost 20 percent.
  • Highly-demanding jobs raised the odds of a physician-diagnosed illness by 35 percent.


The take-home message: Employers should focus more on creating supportive work environments where people feel valued, engaged in their work and are able to remain connected to their families. “A lot of their excess costs come from what happens to people every day in the work environment,” explained Jeffrey Pfeffer, a lead author of the paper and professor of organizational behavior at Stanford. “What happens in the work environment are things that employers could fix if they wanted to.”

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