Work, Stress, Death and the American Way

The Nike boss

Americana Meets Studies on Stress

My new job is indeed very “fast paced”. There’s hardly room for a break and when I’m by myself (or might as well be) there’s almost no way to even feed myself. I’m not exactly clear on how the store I work at is legally getting away with this since Massachusetts requires at least a half-hour break. Maybe the catch is that you’re entitled this but it doesn’t have to be a break per se’? Just so long as you get a half-hour to eat? And technically you can eat whenever…

Regardless, this makes the situation fairly stressful and even dangerous to some degree. I’m trying to wolf down some food and drink while also serving customers at the register. Given this, there’s a chance (especially since I already eat too fast) that I could choke on something or cause a mess or something. These are maybe minor concerns in the grand scheme but I think there still legitimate and point to larger problems with this ideal of being “fast paced” and the underplaying of work-related stress.

But maybe it’s not wise to underplay this given that back in February Sanford scholars determined that work-related stress in America is huge.

The Stanford Business site sums it up:

They found that overall, these stressors increase the nation’s health care costs by 5% to 8%. Job insecurity increased the odds of reporting poor health by 50%, while long work hours increased mortality by almost 20%. Additionally, highly demanding jobs raised the odds of a physician-diagnosed illness by 35%.

“The deaths are comparable to the fourth- and fifth-largest causes of death in the country — heart disease and accidents,” says Zenios, a professor of operations, information, and technology. “It’s more than deaths from diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or influenza.”

Unsurprisingly one of the biggest stressors that workers had that may have impacted their death from it was the lack of health insurance. The study measured both the costs of health care that each of the ten stressors caused as well as its association with morality rate. In both of these areas the lack of access to insurance showed strong correlations to increased mortality and health care costs.

Following behind that are things that, when grouped together, are termed “job insecurity” which are at least partly covered by unemployment, low worker control over their jobs and layoffs.

Something I was miffed about while reading the study (I’ll admit, I skimmed a lot, the study gets super technical and math-orientated half-way through and that’s just not my thing) was that when someone was unemployed they only considered two of the stressors as relevant to them. Namely they only considered unemployment itself and a lack of insurance.

Now, this seems problematic for many reasons but foremost in my mind is that the unemployed have many stress-related factors in their life. When you’re employed are you really only concerned with the fact that you are unemployed and can’t get good medical care? Of course, these are two big things to consider to be sure, I wouldn’t deny that. As someone who was unemployed and didn’t have access to medical care for a bit I can confirm that it sucks quite a bit. But at least in Mass you can get state-sponsored health-care for free or for little cost.

(And before anyone jumps on me, yes I know state-services aren’t actually free since they are paid for by taxpayers, etc. but at least for the person involved in receiving the healthcare they don’t have to pay anything for it when they ask.)

Now, that’s clearly not the case in all states and as an anarchist I don’t support the state forcing folks to have access to healthcare (plus the one I have is pretty limited even in a city as big as Worcester) but it’s still a factor to note when considering the unemployed and access to healthcare.

The study also highlighted something called “Work-Family Conflict” which they define as, “…when one’s efforts to fulfill work role demands interfere with one’s ability to fulfill family demands and vice versa”.

This is an excellent phrase and I’m likely to make great use of it whenever I get around to my cultural study of 80s and 90s films (and maybe TV?) that highlight the father’s (it’s almost always the father from what I remember) conflict with work and family. And how, the happy end is the father almost always choosing family over work and learning how to spend more time with what really matters to them instead of the job that is always making them stressed, more prone to anger and so on.

It’s also worth noting the limits of this study that the authors seemed forthright with and which Sanford Business sums up for us well:

They are unable to make strong causal inference linking these stressors to poor health because the studies they used are observational. “It is association — it doesn’t mean that there’s causation,” Zenios says. “There may be other factors going on.” Also, people handle stress differently, so it’s difficult to assess how attitudes toward stress affect the results.

So when the Stanford Business says this earlier in its article:

Workplace stress — such as long hours, job insecurity and lack of work-life balance — contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year and accounts for up to $190 billion in health care costs, according to new research by two Stanford professors and a former Stanford doctoral student now at Harvard Business School.

It needs to be taken with a bit of salt. The researches can’t simply say that these stressors definitively cause these deaths but they can at least say that they contribute to these deaths happen.

But there’s a larger (or meta) point that the Jeffery Pfeffer, a Stanford professor of organizational behavior who was involved with the study said he was aiming to make, “…we have lost focus on human well-being. It’s all about costs now. Can we afford this, can we afford that? Does it lead to better or worse financial performance for the company? … We’re talking about human beings and the quality of their lives. To me, that ought to get some attention.”

This goes back to Taylorism and rule by experts which as I’ve pointed out before reduces workers to mere cogs and makes them much more disposable. Even in a video where The Globe and Mail (from Canada) did a one-year study about how stress affects work the video basically ends by saying that a “happy employee is a productive employee”. It’s a deeply unnerving sentiment for the simple fact that shouldn’t happiness be valued teleologically and not just as a means to the employer’s ends?

You’re Stressed…Now What?

So if work is stressing you out, what should you do?

Well it depends on a whole host of factors: What’s your job? What’s particularly about the job is causing the stress? How bad is the stress itself? How is the stress affecting you? Are there particular consequences from this stress you can isolate and then reflect on?

There’s a lot of things involved but just to take my earlier example what I do to calm myself down is wait for empty periods in the store. Then I can take my food bit by bit and try to not rush myself as much. If I’m working with someone at the register it becomes a lot easier to eat the food at my own pace.

But if I’m by myself I’ll try to wait until around 6 or 7 PM (I usually start around 3 or 4 PM) so that the store is at least somewhat more likely to be emptier. Getting more sleep (and not sleep depriving myself) also helps keep me more generally awake and alert even if I haven’t eaten yet and so that helps me last longer. Lack of sleep (7-8 hours is typically what’s recommended for adults) is generally going to do you harm during a job. Especially one that involves you being alert most of the time and especially especially if you’re handling quite a bit of money.

Odds and Ends

I’d be remiss if I didn’t show you the graph from the article at Standford Business as well as a video they did which features Pfeffer:

 

 

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