The new generation of the American workplace offers so much more than ever before — workplace gyms, happy hours, at-work nap pods, and free food to name just a few perks. But between the extra benefits and the constant work-related emails, the modern workplace is transforming the office into a 24/7 phenomenon — one that employees are finding more and more difficult to turn off at night or on the weekends.
According to a study from Stanford University, workplace stress is doing more than taking over our lives — it’s taking them. That stress, the study says, is causing roughly 120,000 deaths per year, with stress, long hours and work-family conflicts driving us from cubicle to grave.
“It turns out that work is really, really bad for you,” business historian Nancy Koehn said during an interview with Boston Public Radio Tuesday. “And it is a huge sucker of resources.”
Workplace stress also accounts for $190 billion in health care costs, according to research by Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford professor of organizational behavior, Stefanos A. Zenios of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and Joel Goh of Harvard Business School.
Their meta-analysis of 228 studies examined how 10 common workplace stressors affected overall health.
The 10 stressors: No insurance, shift work, long hours, job insecurity, work-family conflict, low job control, high job demands, low social support and organizational injustice, all contributed to increased health care costs and mortality rates. Highly demanding jobs raised the odds of a physician-diagnosed illness by 35 percent.
Koehn says in white collar, high value-added service work, “job autonomy” has generally declined for people in the workforce. “No matter what you do with your hours, people benefit from a sense of autonomy in their work,” Koehn said. “That is simply being chipped away at in all kinds of ways, including technology, which has many ways of keeping track of what people are doing.”
Organizational injustice, particularly in top-down organizations, is another factor, according to Koehn. “The sense that some people are treated unfairly, that you’re treated unfairly relative to those people, [that] can drive stress,” Koehn said. “You’re thinking, ‘Wait a minute, where’s my nest egg here? My father and mother had a nest egg, the CEO has a nest egg!’”
According to Koehn, each factor seems to chip away at our psychological health over time. “People are trying to figure out what to do, how to keep bread on the table,” she said, “and it’s simply very destructive… over time, for all of us.”
Harvard historian Nancy Koehn holds the James E. Robison Chair of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. Her new book is “Forged in Crisis: The Power of Courageous Leadership in Turbulent Times.”