Workers agree that their jobs and workplaces have an impact on their health — and not always in a positive way.
This was one of the findings of a recent poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Foundation and the Harvard Opinion Research Program the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
In the survey of more than 1,600 adult workers in the United States, one in six (16%) responded that their current job has a negative impact on their overall health. This negative impact also spreads to the workers’ stress levels (43%), eating habits (28%), sleeping habits (27%) and weight (22%).
“Forty-three percent of working adults said that their current job has a big impact on them. There are a whole series of medical studies that show that high levels of stress basically lead to chronic illnesses or make chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes even worse,” says Robert Blendon, the Richard L. Menschel Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who oversaw the survey.
The survey found that workers with dangerous jobs, people who had disabilities and people with lower incomes all had much higher levels of workplace stress. “People who work more than 50 hours a week and those in restaurants and healthcare have higher levels of stress,” Blendon says.
The survey found that four in 10 working adults (44%) report that their current job has an impact on their overall health, and only one in four (28%) report that this impact is positive.
Salary rates also reveal a divide in stress levels as well as earnings. One in four workers in low-paying jobs (26%) say their job has a negative impact on their overall health, compared to just 14% of those in high-paying jobs.
Roughly one-quarter of workers (24%) rate their workplace as only fair or poor in providing a healthy work environment. On the flip side, 34% give their workplace a rating of excellent. About half (51%) say their workplace offers a formal wellness program to promote good health.
Needless to say, stress levels have a profound impact on U.S. employers.
“For employers who expect to have their workforce for a long time, this affects their future healthcare costs,” Blendon says. “You have to think about a broad range of things in the environment that would lower the stress levels for people working for you. A lot of employers just focus on the wellness program if they offer it. They think wellness is essentially a cure for everything. When you look at the high levels of stress across different occupations, sending people to a gym for exercise is not likely to lower stress.”
Blendon recommends that companies conduct focus groups to evaluate the situations that create the highest level of stress and formulate plans to make improvements without altering work output.
When asked if this is a part of the American work culture, Blendon says some ideas from western Europe could have a positive impact on the lives of U.S. workers.
“If you look at some of the European countries, they have taken legal and structural actions to try to reduce their work stress. In western Europe, people get a full month off for vacation. In France, there is a penalty for employers who ask workers to respond to business emails after work,” he says. “They really take the end of the day every seriously.”
Blendon says that while U.S. workers receive an average of two weeks of paid vacation, many do not take the full amount of time off. “Thirty percent work while they are on vacation,” he says.
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