HR researchers discovered the real reason why stressful jobs are killing us

By Arianne Cohen

Your job really might kill you: A new study directly correlates on-the-job stress with death.

Researchers at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business followed 3,148 Wisconsinites for 20 years and found heavy workload and lack of autonomy to correlate strongly with poor mental health and the big D: death. The study is titled “This Job Is (Literally) Killing Me.”

“When job demands are greater than the control afforded by the job or an individual’s ability to deal with those demands, there is a deterioration of their mental health and, accordingly, an increased likelihood of death,” says lead author Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources. “We found that work stressors are more likely to cause depression and death as a result of jobs in which workers have little control.”

The reverse was also true: Jobs can fuel good health, particularly jobs that provide workers autonomy.

Fascinatingly, the amount of autonomy at work turns out to be not a stressor in itself, but control does let people cope with other stresses of work. Intelligence was also found to be a coping mechanism for job stress. “People that are smarter are better able to adapt to the demands of a stressful job and figure out ways to deal with stress,” says Gonzalez-Mulé.

The take-home: Managers should provide employees in demanding jobs with more control, such as choice over how and when they do their work, or if that is not possible, lower demands. The authors note that the coronavirus pandemic is likely exacerbating mental health problems, which makes it more important for managers to turn down the dial on work stress.

“It’s particularly important that work not exacerbate those problems,” he notes.

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