Research has established that stress at work can take a toll on employee health. More specifically, studies have shown how work stress can affect people’s health both psychologically (e.g., burnout) and physiologically (e.g., blood pressure). However, little research has examined the impact of work on more serious health outcomes over time, and ultimately how work may contribute to death.
Prior research suggests that negative health outcomes of work stress are a result of the combination of both the demands and control employees have in their jobs. Job demands are the psychological requirements employees face at work. Examples of job demands include concentration requirements, workload, and time pressure. Job control refers to how much power employees have over their work, such as the ability to make decisions or schedule their work. Job control can be used as a resource to manage job demands. Psychological theory suggests that when job control is low, employees may struggle to meet their job demands, which can worsen the negative health outcomes of stress.
Work may not relate to health outcomes in the same way for everyone. For example, previous research revealed that the relationship between work demands and negative health outcomes is not as strong when traits such as self-efficacy (i.e. belief in one’s own abilities) or optimism are high. This is because people who have higher levels of these traits are more likely to perceive themselves as capable of meeting job demands and therefore are not as threatened by them. However, past research has not examined how one’s actual ability (as opposed to belief in one’s ability) may influence the relationship between work stress and negative health outcomes.
JOB DEMANDS, CONTROL, COGNITIVE ABILITY, AND HEALTH OUTCOMES
New research (Gonzalez-Mulé & Cockburn, 2020) examines how both job control and cognitive ability (one’s general capacity for reasoning, problem solving, and learning) may influence relationships between job demands and mental and physical health, and ultimately death. The authors argue that people with higher cognitive ability may be better protected from the negative health effects of job demands, since they are better equipped to meet the challenges that their work presents. On the other hand, people with lower cognitive ability are less likely to perform well in demanding situations and therefore may be more likely to feel threatened by the demands and, in turn, experience negative health outcomes.
The authors used a large dataset collected at three time points to examine these relationships. Regarding mental health, the researchers found that when either job control or cognitive ability is low, job demands are associated with negative mental health outcomes in the form of depression, which in turn is associated with a higher likelihood of death. Regarding physical health outcomes, they unexpectedly found that when job control is high, job demands are associated with better physical health, as indicated by a measure called allostatic load, which refers to the amount of “wear and tear” on the body. This better physical health was in turn associated with a lower likelihood of death. On the other hand, when job control was low, there was no relationship between job demands and physical health. Further, cognitive ability had no influence on the relationship between job demands and physical health.
PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
The results of this study suggest that mental health suffers when employees lack the control or cognitive ability necessary to meet job demands. This ultimately contributes to an increased likelihood of death. The pattern of results for physical health was different, such that job demands were actually associated with better physical health and a lower likelihood of death, but only when there was also a high level of job control.
These findings suggest that organizations should take measures to protect their employees from detrimental health outcomes that ultimately contribute to death. The authors suggest that managers should give employees working in demanding jobs more control over their work, perhaps by letting them set their own goals or decide how to do their work themselves. The authors further suggest that when giving employees more control is not possible, managers should reduce the demands on their employees, such as by reducing work hours. Employers could also consider selecting people with high cognitive ability when hiring for demanding jobs, since these people are less likely to suffer as a result of high work demands.
When organizations are unable to increase control, reduce demands, or make selection decisions based on cognitive ability, they should implement physical wellness programs or provide mental health services for employees. By being proactive, organizations can protect employees from the deleterious long-term health effects of experiencing high work demands and low job control.
Gonzalez-Mule, E., & Cockburn, B. S. (2020). This job is (literally) killing me: A moderated-mediated model linking work characteristics to mortality. Journal of Applied Psychology, advance online publication.