The real reason work makes you sick


Working long hours may not be the leading cause of office-spawned ailments. (Omar Torres/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

That is, if they feel like they can take such a risk in a down economy, especially if they don’t have paid sick leave. One survey from earlier this year found that nearly three-quarters of people have gone to work while sick, a number that’s almost surely due to people fearing for the security of their jobs. At the same time, nearly two-thirds of employers that responded to a survey from human resources consultancy Towers Watson say they have been working more hours over the past three years. And as the firm reported last week, 31 percent of those companies say their employees are using less of their time off.

It would come as little surprise, then, that working long hours puts you more at risk for ailments. And yet this very well may not be the leading aspect of work that makes you sick, according to a recent study in Work & Stress, an academic journal published by the European Academy of Occupational Health Psychology that PsyBlog pointed to Tuesday. That dubious distinction is reserved, instead, for organizational constraints—or not having the time, materials or resources available to do your job.

The study, a so-called “meta-analysis” of 79 studies, explored the relationship reported in each one between physical symptoms and stress-inducing factors on the job. While it didn’t try to study “causality,” or say that the stresses certainly caused the symptoms, it did look at which stress factors—organizational constraints, interpersonal conflicts, role conflicts, role ambiguity, workload, work hours and lack of control—was most associated with various physical symptoms, from gastrointestinal issues to headaches to sleep disturbances that can make people sick.

After organizational constraints, the next stressor most correlated with physical ailments was “role conflict,” or being told by one supervisor to do one thing and by another to do something else. It was followed by interpersonal conflict (flare-ups with coworkers), workload (obviously, being expected to do more), and role ambiguity (not knowing what’s expected of you), in that order. Only after those five stressors do long hours come into play, ranking sixth on the list, followed finally by feelings of having a lack of control.

As a result, while long hours might be able to make you sick—particularly, by creating eye strain, back problems and issues with your sleep—it’s unlikely to be the biggest factor in work-related illnesses. Instead, it’s less the long hours spent at work and more the stresses, such as too-tight deadlines, fights with colleagues or confusion about the job at hand, that might have you working late in the first place.

This, like most studies of the sort, is hardly that surprising. But for leaders, it’s a reminder that to keep your people healthy, well and productive at work, you should worry less about asking them to work late on an occasional project or to fill a few extra hours when times get tough. Worry more about whether they have the resources they need, have healthy relationships with their teams, and are clear on their jobs—both what their responsibilities are and who’s responsible for them.

More from On Leadership:

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.

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