Toxic Workplaces – Why Your Workplace Might Be Killing You

Why Your Workplace Might Be Killing You”  – this title of a short article refers to a paper “The Relationship Between Workplace Stressors and Mortality and Health Costs in the United States” by Joel Goh, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Stefanos A. Zenios. The authors summarize some of their research results as follows:

“We have seen that employer decisions about work and the workplace are associated with excess deaths and healthcare costs in the U.S.. To put our results in perspective, our model’s estimate of workplace-associated mortality is comparable to the fourth (cerebrovascular diseases) and fifth (accidents) largest cause of death in the U.S. in 2009 …, and exceeds the number of deaths from diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or influenza. Our model also estimates that the workplace-associated healthcare cost is comparable to the estimated cost of diabetes in the U.S. in 2007 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2011), which was $174 billion” (Goh/Pfeffer/Zenios 2015: 25).

The meta-analysis estimates the relative risks of poor health outcomes associated with exposure to ten workplace stressors:

  • Unemployment,
  • lack of health insurance,
  • exposure to shift work,
  • long working hours,
  • job insecurity,
  • work-family conflict,
  • low job control,
  • high job demands,
    low social support at work, and
  • low organizational justice.

“We find that more than 120,000 deaths per year and approximately 5-8% of annual healthcare costs are associated with and may be attributable to how U.S. companies manage their work force. Our results suggest that more attention should be paid to management practices as important contributors to health outcomes and costs in the U.S.” (Goh/Pfeffer/Zenios 2015: 1).

The following picture shows the impact of several workplace stressors, expressed by odds ratios,  compared to the impact of second hand smoke exposere (expressed by odds ratios) (Source). 

That means, for example, the risk (precisely: the “chance”) of a doctor-reported illness is 2.2 times higher for workers without health insurance  compared to workers with health insurance. Workers with low job control face a higher risk of mortality (nearly 1.5 times higher).

Corporations externalize most of these costs. One policy implication is that they should internalize these costs.

The paper has found a lot of attention, see for instance the article in “The Atlantic”.