Yes, work is hazardous to our health. Workplace stress contributes to at least 120,000 deaths each year and accounts for up to $190 billion in health care costs, according to new research. But the biggest stressors may not be what you think. 

“If employers are serious about managing the health of their workforce and controlling their health care costs, they ought to be worried about the environments their workers are in,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a Stanford professor of organizational behavior. 

Pfeffer, along with Stefanos A. Zenios of Stanford and Joel Goh of Harvard Business School, conducted a deeper analysis of 228 previous workplace studies, examining how 10 common workplace stressors affect a person’s health.

#1 Stressor

The stressor with the biggest impact overall is lack of health insurance. It ranks high in both increasing mortality and ultimately increasing health care costs. 

Prefer says what really surprised the research team though was the high impact of psychological stressors

The researchers found work-family conflict and work injustice had just as much impact on health as long work hours or shift work.

For example, employees who reported that they had low control over what happened at work, and work demands prevented them from meeting their family obligations, were 90% more likely to report poor physical health. 

And employees who perceive their workplaces as being unfair are about 50% more likely to develop a physician-diagnosed condition.

Stress is increasing our health care costs

They found that overall, these stressors increase the nation’s health care costs by 5% to 8%. 

Job insecurity increased the odds of reporting poor health by 50%, while long work hours increased mortality by almost 20%. 

Additionally, highly demanding jobs raised the odds of a physician-diagnosed illness by 35%.

“The deaths are comparable to the fourth- and fifth-largest causes of death in the country — heart disease and accidents,” says Zenios, a professor of operations, information, and technology. “It’s more than deaths from diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or influenza.”

What employers can do

Pfeffer says he first became interested in this subject while working on the Stanford Committee for Faculty and Staff Human Resources. 

Stanford is among the many companies and organizations who have instituted wellness programs that focus on encouraging employees to eat better or exercise more. 

But Pfeffer also says these companies often overlook the atmosphere of the workplace setting itself.

“When people like their lives, and that includes work life, they will do a better job of taking care of themselves. When they don’t like their lives, they don’t.”

Good health matters to people and employers, but it also matters to government, Pfeffer adds. The U.S. spends a higher proportion of its GDP on health care than most other industrialized countries, and significantly more per capita.

Summary

The researchers suggest regulations and policy changes that go beyond current overtime restrictions and wage laws, and focus on prevention. 

“Forty or 50 years ago, I could put toxins into the air or water, and someone else had to pay to clean it up,” Pfeffer says. “We decided that wasn’t very good because it costs more to remediate than prevent. It’s true in the case of human health as well,’’ he says. “It costs more to remediate the effects of toxic workplaces than it does to prevent their ill effects in the first place.”

One suggestion researchers offer up is tax incentives that could encourage employers to offer more work-family balance or reduce layoffs. 

Pfeffer says in summation more companies need to get serious about creating a workplace where people feel valued, trusted, and respected, where they are engaged in their work, don’t worry constantly about losing their jobs, and where they can get home to meet family needs. 

“My meta point is that we have lost focus on human well-being. It’s all about costs now. Can we afford this, can we afford that? Does it lead to better or worse financial performance for the company?” Pfeffer says. “We’re talking about human beings and the quality of their lives. To me, that ought to get some attention."