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Is Your Job A Hazard To Your Health?

First appeared on Forbes.

The next time someone tells you, “my job is killing me,” it may not just be a figure of speech.

In a time when large employers now spend almost $900 per employee per year on wellness programs, one can only wonder whether stressful work environments have produced the very problems companies are trying to fix.

And now there’s new evidence that some workplace factors like job strain and shift work actually shorten life expectancy. A recent study attributes as much as 10 to 38 percent of premature death to harmful aspects of work. High-strain situations correlate to greater rates of unhealthy behaviors like overeating, less frequent exercise, and more use of harmful substances. Workers faced with high demands, low control, and low social support experience significantly higher rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes, independent of traditional risk factors. Workers in high-strain work environments also have been shown to develop two times as many new cases of clinical depression and anxiety disorders compared to those in low-strain environments.

This paints a sober picture of the modern workplace—one where workers can suffer serious consequences from psychological duress.

Ideally, every work setting would enhance your health and life. Many companies can and do work towards this goal. Realistically, however, culture and management changes do not come quickly or easily, especially for companies with long-standing, hierarchical structures. The realities of business often distract executives from making a supportive work environment their highest priority.

 So what ethical responsibilities do companies have to protect employees from exposure to known hazards? For basic safety issues, employers have a duty to either reduce exposure or equip employees with preventative skills and tools to minimize risk. For psychological safety, should workers expect the same protection? If organizations cannot reduce work demands or increase individual job discretion, perhaps organizations can help employees cope better and thrive under difficult circumstances.
It’s not surprising that resilience training is now the fastest growing health program among employers. Resilience moderates the effects of high job strain, improving job satisfaction and performance. Not unlike training workers to use proper lifting techniques to protect their backs or to apply protective gear to avoid injury, resilience teaches people to challenge and adjust negative thinking patterns that can be caused or worsened by stressful work settings.
“The impact of chronic stress on personal performance is multidimensional,” says Michael Thompson, Principal at PricewaterhouseCoopers, who has over 25 years in healthcare and employee benefits strategy development and implementation, design, financing, pricing, operations, and analysis. “Demands and pressures can come from all directions. By helping people learn the skill of resilience, we are helping them to be at their best at work, at home and in life; it’s a positive step forward toward their greater well-being and a positive return for the organization.” Like programs that prepare workers for specific physical tasks, resilience training is similar to protective gear for the brain
The good news: long-established science proves that resilience—the ability to cope and thrive in stressful situations—is a measurable set of skill-based competencies, including impulse control, empathy, positivity, and realistic optimism, that can be learned; and everyone has the ability to increase his or her resilience.

A recent study on the relationship between resilience and industry-standard business and psychological metrics, conducted by meQuilibrium, found that higher resilience is strongly correlated with benchmark physical and psychometric measures, such as job performance, perceived stress, overall health, and job satisfaction.

Resilient workers are less stressed.

Our research found that there is a strong inverse correlation between perceived stress and resilience: higher resilience corresponds to lower perceptions of stress. In fact, individuals with high resilience have 46% less perceived stress than those with low resilience.

Resilience translates to better health.

Individuals with high levels of resilience are nearly five times more likely to report very good or excellent health, compared to their peers with low resilience. Conversely, individuals with low resilience scores are twice as likely to be overweight and twice as likely to have required a hospital stay in the past year.

Resilient employees have higher job satisfaction.

Those with high levels of resilience are almost four times as likely to be highly satisfied with their jobs when compared to those with low levels of resilience. This group is also half as likely to have reported one to three absences in the past month.

We all know a work environment can be stressful. Decades of research document significant effects of job strain on physical health, including heart disease, diabetes, depression and anxiety disorders, and other illnesses. Faced with an ever-quickening pace and fewer resources, today’s workers need and deserve skills to manage the pressures they experience. We’ve learned to give workers hard hats, safety gear, and training to improve their chances of success and safety. Now it’s time to start protecting what’s between our ears.