Certain work stressors have been connected to health, sick leave and presenteeism, but this study wanted to know their impact on mortality.
Some of the most powerful sequences in the HBO miniseries Chernobyl are of the deputy chief engineer, Anatoly Dylatov, bullying his more honourable subordinates into actions they know are dangerous. For the sake of a promotion, it is implied, he was willing to push a nuclear reactor to the brink and risk the lives of not just his workforce, but millions of people in the surrounding areas.
Part of the power of the sequences comes from their resonance with a feeling most people have experienced in our work lives. Who doesn’t know what it feels like to be directed to do something we disagree with, that we have no power to say is a waste of time or perilous?
But this feeling doesn’t just come from bad memories of entry-level jobs. It’s something deep and intrinsic to being human. Because it turns out that job control – the power we have over how our talents are used, what organisational decisions are made and when things are done – can have a significant impact on our lives.
Multiple studies have linked low job control with poor physical health (including cardiovascular issues) and stress-related disorders (including depression and anxiety), and other studies have linked greater job control to increased happiness.
Now a new Australian study, published in Occupational & Environmental Medicine, has found a connection between low job control and death.
Looking at approximately 18,000 participants from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, the researchers found that low job control is associated with a 39 per cent increase in the risk of “all-cause mortality” (all forms of death). This increase was found even after the researchers controlled for “demographic, socioeconomic, health and behavioural factors”. It also found that as reported job control increased, the risk of death fell.
In other words, it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, there’s growing evidence that low job control is bad for you.
The Chernobyl sequences are powerful. But they are also embellishments, if not lies. As author and journalist Masha Gessen writes in the New Yorker, the hero and villain presentation of the facts is a reflection of traditional Hollywood storytelling, not the reality of a repressive system where most people were “pliant”.
This is the correct way to view the results of this study and of the effects of job control in general. Don’t imagine reluctant workers forced to trudge into hazardous environments that kill them, rather think of the accumulative effect of months and years of working for the sake of working, with no say in the nature of that work.
In fact, Chernobyl can remain a useful metaphor. Just put aside the explosion and immediate radiation deaths and focus on the low-dose but sustained radiation poisoning that leaves people unhurt in the moment but deeply ill years down the line.
Other stressors and limitations
The researchers found that the risk of death was a little higher for men with low job control than it was for women. “One possible explanation is the ‘role theory’, the notion that work is typically more central to identity among men than among women,” they write.
The authors didn’t limit their research to low job control. They also looked at the link between morality and job demands, job insecurity and feelings of unfair pay.
While you can imagine why the stress of being unsure about your continued occupation, or of receiving unjust remuneration, might weigh on a person in a similar way to low job control, the researchers didn’t find that they did.
Fascinatingly though, the researchers found that higher job demands, being asked to do more in your job, reduced mortality risks. But these benefits were “attenuated” (made far less significant) after the researchers controlled for socioeconomic, health and behavioural risk factors. The researchers also couldn’t guarantee there wasn’t an issue with the sample – i.e. that generally healthier people are the only ones able to have jobs with huge demands.
No study is perfect. For example, the researchers note that a survey is vulnerable to reporting bias. But they also note that self-reporting of job stress has the advantage of capturing perception. The feeling that you have low job control is what’s important, as it really is subjective – your soul-destroying assembly line work could be someone else’s breezy, routine task.
And like most studies, this one is discovering links and associations rather than making ironclad connections. Nevertheless, the takeaway is that this is more evidence that low job control has adverse effects on humans, and that it’s worth doing something about.
Why is this an HR concern?
Greater job control contributes to employee wellbeing, but it goes beyond that. Giving people more autonomy has been linked to lower turnover and higher engagement and job satisfaction. So there’s a business case in trying to give employees more job control.
Building resilience can protect employee wellbeing and help to create a positive working environment. Find out more in this three hour course.
How you give employees more job control is worth a whole article, but there are general ideas and principles you can start thinking about today.
- Consultation with staff can give them a greater sense of control. So thinking about how your organisation approaches employee voice is helpful.
- Performance management is a key way to give employees more job control. You should be asking questions like: are you measuring people on key performance indicators or objectives and key results? Why? How arbitrary are your evaluations? Is performance management collaborative and ongoing, or is it semi-annual and top-down?
- It’s not possible for all workers, but giving people power over when they do things is the simplest way to increase job control.
- Flexible work also decreases attrition, improves productivity and is attractive to jobseekers.
Have you overseen a transformation that allowed employees to maintain job control or increased it? Share your advice in the comments below.