IAN MANN: Warning: Your job could be killing you

Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance - and What We Can Do About It, by Jeffrey Pfeffer 

IN THE past, the workplace was a dangerous environment. Fatalities and severe injuries were so common that they were deemed to be simply the price of being employed.

Thanks to occupational health and safety acts, the once-frequent physical dangers of workplaces have been largely eliminated. We know this type of injury has diminished because it is visible and easily measurable.

What is less well known and almost entirely ignored is the danger of toxic workplaces to individuals’ physical wellbeing, which can even lead to premature and unnatural death. Really.

Jeffrey Pfeffer has been a professor at the elite Graduate School of Business at Stanford University for almost 40 years. He is the author of 15 books including ‘Leadership BS’ and ‘Power’, both reviewed in this column, and both anything but warm and fluffy.

With rigour, befitting a man of his stature, he brings exquisitely researched information to the argument of this book.

Briefly stated, his conclusion is: “The workplace profoundly affects human health and mortality, and too many workplaces are harmful to people’s health… affecting people in numerous occupations, industries, and geographies, and cutting across people of various ages and levels of education.”

So, what constitutes a toxic workplace? One that has impossibly demanding work requirements, doesn’t offer medical aid, uses shift workers irregularly, creates insecurity about one's job, has an overpowering micro-management style, where one does not have friends - and you can fill in the rest.

Consider ‘excess’ death caused by workplace conditions. ‘Excess’ is the number of deaths beyond the norm which can be directly attributed to the workplace, and nothing else.

Shocking figures

The research Pfeffer cites indicates shocking figures. Becoming unemployed leads to 35 000 excess deaths. Not having medical insurance leads to 50 000.

Shift work leads to 13 000. Feeling insecure about keeping your job leads to 29 000 deaths. Having little control over your work, 17 000. Not having social support at work, 3 000. Having a highly demanding job leads to 8 000 excess death.

(The research methodology that underlies this information is extraordinarily sophisticated and well described in the body of the book.)

The 120 000 deaths that are in excess each year in the United States makes workplace management practices the fifth leading cause of death in the country!

This is an invisible killer, widely accepted as an inevitable part of work, and seems to be getting worse.

So many organisations allow management practices that literally sicken and kill their employees, and many even encourage these practices.

But the employers suffer too, because these practices don’t improve profitability or performance. In the US, the cost of toxic workplaces is more than $300bn annually!

Emerging countries fare no better. Wages are lower, jobs are scarce, and working hours are longer. How many people you know have begun taking stimulants, or turn to alcohol to numb the constant workplace stress and abusive management?

Retrenchments may do more harm than good

Consider laying off staff. Research on the effects of retrenchments on company performance is extensive, and the shocking truth is that there is little evidence that layoffs provide benefit when analysed carefully and over time.

There is a lot of evidence that layoffs do more harm to companies than good and affect profitability in non-obvious ways. These include low morale and survivors who are risk-averse, commit sabotage, or perpetrate workplace violence as aggrieved former employees.

The loss of institutional memory and knowledge is a huge cost, as is diminished trust in management and reduced labour productivity.

Layoffs by themselves rarely if ever solve the underlying business problems such as poor quality, low productivity, or market acceptance.

Sustainability is a major concern in most developed and developing countries, as is evident from the volume of laws prohibiting companies from abusing the environment.

Pfeffer remarks that you “are better off being a tree than an employee.”

It doesn’t have to be this way, and there is clear evidence of the solution to keeping employees physically and mentally healthy.

Physical and mental health doesn’t depend on offering “cute amenities”, and doesn’t require deep pockets. The solution lies in the work environment and the work itself.

What a healthy workplace needs

A healthy workplace has two crucial elements: employees have control and autonomy, and have social support.

“If you want to drive any organism - a rat, a dog, or a human being - crazy and create a whimpering, downcast, and helpless being, one of the surest ways is to administer random punishments, not linked to any specific behaviour, or to in other ways impose capricious demands that remove people’s sense of control over their environment,” Pfeffer explains.

This has been proven to be correct in numerous studies dating back the Whitehall Studies in the 1970s, which examined the difference in life expectancy between those who have control over their work and those who don’t.

The first step towards improving employees’ physical and mental health is to understand and measure the cost of toxic management practices. This can be calculated in terms of direct medical costs, and indirectly in terms of lost productivity and decreased staff turnover.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the person you report to at work is more important for your health than your family doctor, Pfeffer writes.

“Leaders should ensure that at the end of the day, their employees return home in good shape, prepared to live fulfilled lives outside of work.”

That is surely a human right.

Readability:  Light ---+- Serious

Insights:      High +---- Low

Practical:     High --+-- Low

  • Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.