High Stress and Low Control: The Makings of Modern Life and Death under Work

“Afoul” is putting it lightly, but yes.

Health concerns aren’t a new topic on this site and certainly stress isn’t either. But this time around we have even more data to support the obvious: Stress kills in the long-run and stressful jobs are a locus of stress, therefore working too hard and too much can damage our health and in the long-run, kill us.

A somewhat recent study out of Indiana University surveyed over 2,000 participants within the course of 7 years in Wisconsin and reached some unsurprising results:

For individuals in low-control jobs, high job demands are associated with a 15.4 percent increase in the likelihood of death, compared to low job demands. For those in high-control jobs, high job demands are associated with a 34 percent decrease in the likelihood of death compared to low job demands.

Up front I want to say that the study is limited to participants in Wisconsin (though a statistically signifcant amount of folks for what its worth) and was applied mainly to people at the end of their careers. So it’s possible that the ages involved in the study have biased the results in one way or another. Nevertheless, the methodology generally seems sound and the numbers are (as I said) statistically significant.

Now, the study seems to show that not only is the modern conception of work is bad but so is one of its main components: micromanagement. The study talks about how people with less control at their jobs tend to be more stressed out and this intuitively makes sense. If we don’t have  control over our  goals, schedules or the tools we have to complete our tasks at the job how could we be anything but stressed?

This isn’t helped by the fact that managers often ignore local knowledge to the detriment of both themselves and the workers involved in their micromanaging. I had a boss when I used to work at Walgreens who would constantly nag me about the way I worked or what I did and perhaps it got me to work more or harder, but it also made me a lot more stressed.

I would be worried about my financial state and whether it’d change suddenly, just because some asshole didn’t like how fast I was stocking cans of tuna at 1 AM or something. That kind of stuff, especially given I was fairly poor and dependent on someone else for housing at the time put me in a rather precarious situation that doesn’t exactly inspire peace of mind.

The study in question is called Worked to Death: The Relationships of Job Demands and Job Control With Mortality and as you can see it’s unfortunately behind a paywall. But there are (ahem) ways to get around that and maybe in the future I’ll try to do just that, but for now, the article I’m quoting from cites a lot of the juicy bits and quotes directly from the authors themselves, so that seems sufficient for now:

Gonzalez-Mulé said the paper’s results do not suggest that employers necessarily need to cut back on what is expected from employees. Rather, they demonstrate the value in restructuring some jobs to provide employees with more say about how the work gets done.

“You can avoid the negative health consequences if you allow them to set their own goals, set their own schedules, prioritize their decision-making and the like,” he said, also recommending that firms allow “employees to have a voice in the goal-setting process, so when you’re telling someone what they’re going to do … it’s more of a two-way conversation.”

But of course this defeats the point of the manager-worker relationship. If the relationship is more of a “two-way conversation” then what is your manager except a co-worker with specific duties that makes them convinced they have authority over you? Eventually if you keep devolving more and more power to workers so they can do their own thing and set their own goals through their own means, then you start to see the obvious lack of need for bosses.

In addition, I’m not so sure that the study doesn’t show that employers need to not cut back and restructure the jobs towards employee empowerment. I don’t think this needs to be a mutually exclusive thing and in fact think one follows rather logically from the other. If you’re giving less work to the employees, then you can also give them more control over what they are working on without worrying about it as much.

I’m not necessarily saying that workers should be expecting managers or bosses to actually give up the power that they wield in the workplace. I don’t thnik that would be a very realistic expectation but I do think that this kind of data lends credence to the ideas of worker self-management and worker cooperatives, etc.

Not that any of those things by themselves abolish work (capitalism and the state need to be opposed as well) but they certainly don’t hurt to have in an economy that wants to be resilient to the unsustainability of capitalism.

Let’s continue:

Thus, micro-managing employees can have a public health impact. Among people in the study’s sample, the researchers also found that the same set of causal relationships applied to their body mass index. People in high-demand jobs with low control were heavier than those in high-demand jobs with high control.

“When you don’t have the necessary resources to deal with a demanding job, you do this other stuff,” Gonzalez-Mulé said. “You might eat more, you might smoke, you might engage in some of these things to cope with it.”

I see this all of the time in the jobs I work and I see it in myself as well.

People will smoke cigarettes or go to the bar more often, eat a lot of crappy food (me) or eat out more often in order to treat themselves, etc. They might do more of “nothing” during the weekend so they can fully relax instead of pursuing their passions or going out for a run or whatever. None of these things are inherently good or bad, mind you.

But when you combine all of that with a really stressful job that you don’t feel like you have much control over, then it can be a rather perilous combination of physical and mental tolls being taken on your body. Given all of that, it’s not surprising that so many people die from stress and subsequently from their jobs.

Gonzalez-Mulé said the new study highlights the benefits of job crafting, a relatively new process that enables employees to mold and redesign their job to make it more meaningful. Other research suggests that workers who engage in job crafting are happier and are more productive than co-workers who don’t.

“In some settings, it will be difficult to do this. For a construction worker, it’s going to really hard to allow them autonomy; there’s usually just one right way to do things. In jobs like that, it’s more about just warning the employee of the risks that are here,” he said. “But with some blue-collar jobs, you can. Some people have experimented with this in factory settings, using things like flex-time and paying people based on piece-rate … showing employees what the outcome is of their work.

Now, to me, “job crafting” just seems like state-capitalism’s response to the more radical demand of worker autonomy. Basically this proposal is just worker autonomy but with a bunch of strings and a whole lot of specificity.

So not really worker autonomy at all.

It’s more of a managerial way to pipe down the people who are realizing that their jobs are literally killing them and so they want to give them some sort of control. But as discussed before, through Google, this is an illusory move that tries to convince the workers that they are a lot more free under the current system than they actually are.

As for whether it will be difficult in certain settings to have full-fledged worker autonomy (which isn’t what Gonzalez-Mulé is talking about but I’m extrapolating towards my own concept) I have no doubt of that being the case. But the examples given seem odd to me. Construction workers may have “just one right way” to do things but why couldn’t they come up with it collaboratively?

The examples given about “flex-time” and paying based on “piece-rate” are just furthering my point about this just being state-capitalism’s way of silencing dissent or at least making it seem less palpable to others.

Their study also found that people with a higher degree of control over their work tend to find stress to be useful.

“Stressful jobs cause you to find ways to problem-solve and work through ways to get the work done. Having higher control gives you the resources you need to do that,” Gonzalez-Mulé said. “A stressful job then, instead of being something debilitating, can be something that’s energizing. You’re able to set your own goals, you’re able to prioritize work. You can go about deciding how you’re going to get it done. That stress then becomes something you enjoy.”

So today I was playing Resident Evil 4 (bare with me) and i ended up clearing a chapter of the game on Professional (the hardest difficulty setting). The whole time I was slightly stressed and alert but by the end of it I felt like I had just had an adrenaline rush (nerd alert, I know) and felt a bit more alive than I had previously.


Because I was engaged and felt in control of my environment and what I was doing with the stress. the stress was of my own choosing and not something someone forced on to me from the top down. This is another example of how the anti-work philosophy isn’t necessarily anti-stress at all as much as being against the oppression that work causes.

Stress is merely a symptom of work and not its main starting point. Understanding that so we don’t get confused about ourgoals is vitally important to actually seeing the realization of the ludic life.

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2 thoughts on “High Stress and Low Control: The Makings of Modern Life and Death under Work

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