The Serious Workplace Mental Health Solutions Take Shape Outside the US

October 27, 2018 in Stress, job design, job strain

Pay attention to the science-backed workplace mental health frameworks that are taking shape outside the US, like those in Canada, Europe, and Australia.

In the US, the messaging of vendors and consultants tends to drown out science. Last year, for example, data from a meta-analysis — which included more than 120,000 research subjects — showed that job strain (the combination of high demands and low control at work) may lead to clinically diagnosed depression. This is consistent with a lot of other research that points us toward employer strategies for the primary prevention of mental health problems. But psychosocial risk and primary prevention are missing-in-action when we look at mental health resources made available by US employee wellness professional organizations and their vendors/consultant partners, .

Mental health crises — just like physical health crises — are mission critical, but this doesn’t mean we can’t prevent them before they happen and, what’s more, aspire to create workplace environments in which employee well-being flourishes.

Canada’s “Standard for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace” is a compelling example of a social strategy to promote mental health in all its stages — emphasizing primary prevention. Find out more about Canada’s Standard and other science-backed workplace mental health strategies on the Jozito mental health resources hub.

Webinar: Wellness, Wellbeing, and Workforce Sustainability — 3 Routes to Employee Wellness and Optimal Performance

July 13, 2018 in Uncategorized, Wellbeing, Employee Wellness Programs, Stress

Big thanks to the folks at Lumity, Inc. for inviting me to present the webinar “Wellness, Wellbeing, and Workforce Sustainability: 3 Routes to Employee Wellness and Optimal Performance.” If you missed it, check out the recording

In this orderly mash-up, I present about 40 years of work in 33 minutes (plus Q&A). It has something for everyone — from the HR generalist who’s been assigned to wellness but may not know much about it, to veteran managers of comprehensive programs trying to figure out what does and doesn’t work. I cover

  • the premise of health risk costs and risk reduction;
  • the distinctions between wellness and wellbeing;
  • ROI vs. VOI;
  • typical wellness program components;
  • work, stress, and health;
  • job crafting.

Without being overly prescriptive, I offer my own interpretations of evidence and practices, some of which you’ll find immediately applicable and some of which will irk you to no end. This link, exclusively for my blog readers, takes you directly to the recording.

Japan Gets Real About Workplace Stress

May 10, 2018 in Stress

Job Stress

In 2015, Japan passed a law requiring businesses with 50 or more employees to offer workers an annual assessment — the “Stress Check” — which measures risk of stress and other mental health concerns based on three domains:

  • Psychosocial and other stressors in the work environment, including job demands, job control (autonomy), work intensity, and sense of purpose.
  • Mental and physical symptoms of stress like irritability, exhaustion, difficulty concentrating, musculoskeletal discomfort, difficulty sleeping.
  • Social support, including connection with supervisors, co-workers, and loved ones.

The Japanese government recommends their 57-question assessment tool, the Brief Job Stress Questionnaire (BJSQ). Take a look at the English version here. Employers can use alternative questionnaires, but they’re required to include the same domains — workplace stressors, symptoms, and support.

The law — designed to help prevent stress in response to an epidemic of stress-related death and disease — mandates that

  • Employees are given the results of their Stress Check.
  • Employees found to be at high-risk for potentially harmful stress are referred to a physician.
  • Employers modify stressful work conditions (such as schedules, work location, or responsibilities) in collaboration with high-risk employees’ physicians.
Japan Stress Check program flow

Stress Check process (click to enlarge)

The law encourages employers to improve the workplace environment based on analysis of their group’s data. Specific interventions aren’t prescribed, although models and case studies are available.

The law prohibits release of employees’ data to employers without the employee’s permission, and it prohibits discrimination based on Stress Check participation or results. Though employers are required to offer the Stress Check, workers aren’t required to participate.

No one’s advocating a program like this outside Japan, but it should evoke dialog among wellbeing professionals and enlighten how we view job stress.

  • Japan — like much of Europe, Canada, and the US’s NIOSH — recognizes that job stress is rooted in workplace risk factors: lack of autonomy, role ambiguity, job insecurity, lack of social support, excessive demands, harsh environments, inadequate rewards, work/life conflict, and unfair treatment.

The Stress Check questionnaire draws on a growing body of evidence showing that it does, indeed, identify people who are at high risk of mental health-related disability.

As for intervention… There’s a lot of experimentation to be done before we can definitively say what works. To date, evidence supports organizational change more than personal interventions to prevent worker stress.

Recently, a small initial study failed to demonstrate positive outcomes for either the questionnaire alone or for workplace interventions alone. However, the researchers reported:

Combining the annual stress survey with improvement in the psychosocial work environment can effectively reduce psychological distress.

Like it or hate it, the Stress Check program is innovative. We’re reminded that innovation is not always technology driven. We need innovators to follow Japan’s example and take a fresh look at our job stress paradigms.

Job Demands-Resources: Untangling Stress and Motivation

March 3, 2018 in Featured, job crafting, Stress
Still shot from Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" illustrating high demands, low resources, no social support on an assembly line.

High demands, low resources. No social support.

To understand what job crafting has to do with employee health and wellbeing, it’s important to understanding the inner workings of job stress and motivation.

In a previous post — “I’ve Seen the Future of Employee Wellbeing: It’s Name Is Job Crafting” — I explained how, in 2001, Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton proposed that employees tweak their job tasks, workplace social connections, and perspective about their role to gain a greater sense of purpose and meaning, potentially leading to better job performance.

Around that same time, in the Netherlands, Evangelia Demerouti, Arnold Bakker, and others introduced their model of Job Demands-Resources (JD-R), which has since been fine-tuned and validated as relevant to a full range of occupations and outcomes in countless studies around the world.

If you’re familiar with job stress research, you know that job stress has causes, and shouldn’t be dismissed as a choice employees make.

Forget trendy notions that “stress is good.” It’s wishful thinking based on cherry-picked evidence. If stress is so great, why aren’t employees demanding more of it?

Forty years of research has shown that harmful job stress is a result of jobs that have low levels of autonomy and high demands.

Job Demands and Autonomy Are Linked to Health Problems

Over the years, job autonomy (or control) has been defined different ways, but can be broadly understood as limited flexibility (for example, with the tasks of the job) and limited decisional latitude, meaning the employee isn’t permitted or encouraged to make decisions in their work or about their work.

Job demands originally meant the psychological intensity of work, but ultimately can be understood to include workload, time pressure, and physical demands.

Job strain illustration shows relationship of demands, control, social support, and health.

Job strain

Robert Karasek introduced the theory of demands and control in 1979. He and others have shown that jobs in which workers consistently encounter high job demands with low job control — the combination of which is called job strain — are linked to a variety of health issues, especially high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, as well as depression, anxiety, burnout, and metabolic disorders. Reducing job strain can improve productivity.

Karasek later learned that social support “buffers” the negative effects of high-strain jobs. Social support originally meant supervisors’ and co-workers’ support for performing job tasks, but can be understood in all of the many ways it’s been defined: Having a sense of “belongingness” at work; having co-workers who are empathetic and confidantes; having supervisors who take a genuine interest in the personal and professional lives of team members; and having a best friend at work.

In sum, high demands and low control are an unhealthy combo. (High demands and high control are not necessarily bad.)

Effort-Reward Imbalance Is Linked to Health Problems

Unhealthy job stress has been framed in other ways. Germany’s Johannes Siegrist found that work in which the required effort is disproportionately high compared to the job rewards— effort-reward imbalance — leads to the same kinds of health problems that result from job strain. “Rewards,” here, doesn’t just mean financial compensation, but also career opportunities and level of esteem within the organization.

The effort-reward imbalance model reminds me of an encounter I once had with a business analyst who transferred to another department because she didn’t feel valued in the department she was hired into. When I asked her, “What would have made you feel more valued?” her answer was not “better pay” or “someone saying ‘good job’”…

“I just wanted someone to listen to my ideas,” she told me.

A worker who doesn’t feel valued (i.e. esteemed) by being “listened to” is likely to have a higher level of disengagement and health impairment. This offers a glimpse into how management style, job design, organizational culture, performance, turnover, health, and wellbeing are all interconnected.

Overtime, Job Insecurity, Injustice, and More…

Several other causes of job stress have been identified, and most of them can in some way fit into the demand-control and/or the effort-reward imbalance model:

      • • chronic overtime
      • • job insecurity
      • • work-life conflict
      • • role ambiguity (not being clear of what’s expected, receiving contradictory direction, duplication with other workers’ roles, or not understanding how the work fits into the overall organization — all of which are among the most common complaints I’ve heard from employees who report high job stress).
      • • organizational injustice (being treated unfairly, which at the extreme includes bullying and harassment)
      • • lower levels of status within the organization
      • • sustaining high levels of vigilance (e.g. first responders, air traffic controllers, etc.)

Back to Bakker

The overlaps between and the nuances of these job stress theories makes them difficult to understand and apply. That’s where Bakker and Demerouti’s Job Demands-Resources model comes in. While building on the existing theories and expanding upon them, it also provides a simpler way of making sense of job stress and motivation. I consider it a comprehensible and practical  unifying theory.

JD-R posits that all job traits can be categorized as either demands or resources. 

      • • Demands require sustained effort from employees. They’re an expenditure of personal energy.
      • • Resources help fuel progress toward work-related goals. They’re restorative, buffering the effects of job demands —and activating personal development.

I interpret JD-R to mean that Karasek’s “demands,” Siegrest’s “efforts,” as well as role ambiguity, job insecurity, injustice, tedium, and work-life conflict are demands.

Job autonomy, social support, rewards, recognition, feedback, task variety, and training are examples of resources.

Side note: If you’re familiar with Edward Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory — popularized in the Daniel Pink bestseller, Drive — which tells us that motivation and flourishing depend on autonomy, competence, and relatedness (i.e. social connection), you may recognize that job resources generally can be matched to the components of self-determination.

So…

      • • Demands regulate job stress. 
      • • Resources regulate job motivation and engagement. 
      • • And the two forces may act upon each other.

Looking Forward…

That’s enough theory for now. What I’ve come to appreciate about JD-R is how, according to research by Bakker and others, it serves as a foundation for a practical application: job crafting.

JD-R takes job crafting beyond meaning and purpose — which has received most of the public attention — and ties it directly into health and wellbeing.

I’ll spell this out further in a future post, and also draw the important distinction between positive and negative job demands. I’ll share what research shows about the effectiveness of job crafting interventions for improving employee wellbeing, work engagement, absenteeism, performance, and productivity. And I’ll offer evidence-based tips on how you can prime your organization for job crafting.

*************

For an excellent overview, see Bakker and Demerouti’s 2016 article: Job Demands-Resources Theory: Taking Stock and Looking Forward

Dealing With Burnout

February 27, 2018 in Uncategorized, Stress, industrial organizational psychology

burnt out personIf you can find some downtime (or some treadmill time?), listen to “Dealing With Burnout” the Wisconsin Public Radio Morning Show. One of the guests was Monique Valcour PhD CPCC, who has a gift for articulating, in super-practical terms, the connection between work and wellbeing. Monique explains what burnout really is, and delivers keen insight when the first caller makes a reference to the role of autonomy in addressing his own burnout. She talks about burnout as an “interpersonal phenomenon” and notes the supportive effects of mindfulness and emotional intelligence. And she provides practical tips for workplace leaders.

By the way, not only is it essential for us wellness professionals to address the burnout that occurs amongst employees, but I’m observing that it’s increasingly common within HR, Employee Benefits, and Employee Wellness teams. So if you don’t feel the need to learn about burnout for your organization, learn about it as an act of compassion for yourself.

https://www.wpr.org/shows/dealing-burnout

 

 

9 Hopes – Not Predictions – For Employee Wellness in 2018

December 23, 2017 in Stress

employee wellness predictionsInstead of offering predictions about what will happen in employee wellness in the coming year, here is what I hope to happen:

  1. When we advocate new strategies, we’ll cite peer-reviewed evidence to support our case.
  2. We’ll assess and listen carefully to what employees really want.
  3. Organizational leaders will recognize that employee wellbeing is everyone’s responsibility — not just the wellness coordinator’s.
  4. Wellness coordinators will recognize that employee wellbeing is everyone’s responsibility — not just theirs.
  5. We’ll study models of job stress, including demand/control/social-support (job strain), effort-reward, organizational fairness, and job demands-resources (JD-R), and understand their relevance to overall employee wellbeing.
  6. We’ll open up to the possibility that behavior change isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of employee wellbeing.
  7. We’ll expect vendors to accept their fair share of financial risk for results, without just baking it into their pricing.
  8. We’ll identify a forum for wellness practitioners and industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists to experience cross-learning about assessment and enhancement of work, wellbeing, and productivity.
  9. Our major wellness conferences will connect their attendees with nonprofit (or under-resourced) employers in their host cities to model wellbeing interventions for employees who otherwise might not have access.

This post is excerpted from 9 Employee Wellness Trends that Won’t Happen in 2018 (and 9 that Should), originally published on LinkedIn on December 12, 2017.

Holiday Stress Programs? Bah!

August 5, 2017 in Commentary, Employee Wellness Programs, Stress, Uncategorized

The Joy of Sharing image

It may be too late for employee wellness professionals to adjust their plans for holiday-season programs this year, but now is an ideal time to rethink the holiday stress programs we typically offer.

Every December, wellness program managers promote programs about managing “holiday stress.” These commonly take the form of lunch-and-learns or communication campaigns. They have the usual catchy titles like Holiday Stress Less and Take the Hassle Out of the Holidays.

The holiday season is stressful for many employees — no doubt about it. And it’s distinct from other sources of stress in the workplace in that the conditions that cause holiday stress can, indeed, be modified with behavioral approaches.

But I suspect that our holiday stress programs add to employee stress. They contribute to a culture that considers stress the primary mental state in which we experience the holidays and, as such, comprise a self-fulfilling prophecy.

May I suggest a new approach to promoting mental health during the holidays, even if some of the content may be the same? Let’s offer programs that promote happiness and joy, rather than just trying to remediate stress. Next year, instead of teaching people to manage holiday stress, why not teach them how to nurture their holiday happiness? Why not publish newsletter articles like “How to Share Holiday Joy”?

Instead of “5 Tips for Managing Your Holiday To-Do List,” how about “101 Reasons to Enjoy a Holiday Vacation”? Rather than “Balancing the Burdens of Work/Life During the Holidays,” how about “Focus on Family this Holiday Season!”

[Originally posted by Bob Merberg in May 2010 on the In TEWN blog.]

“Health Shapes Work and Work Shapes Health”

July 16, 2016 in Uncategorized, Stress, job design
construction workers

Photo courtesy jaimebisbal

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, as well as the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and National Public Radio, may have given a boost last week to advocates of employee wellbeing. Here, I refer to what I consider authentic wellbeing — based on workers’ exposure to harmful job conditions and environments — not the store-bought imitation based on wellness websites, apps, incentives, and medicalized interventions.

To promote the findings of their Workplace Health poll of 1,601 workers, these sponsoring organizations waged a publicity blitz that brought the “healthy work” perspective to a broad new audience. A Health in the American Workplace panel, streamed live on the web, served as a centerpiece of the campaign.

Workers’ Views on Jobs and Health

Poll results, according to panelists, revealed that many workers view their jobs as impediments to their wellbeing.

  • 43% said their job has a negative impact on their stress level
  • 28% said their job undermines their eating habits
  • 27% reported that their job interfered with the ability to get a good night’s sleep
  • 22% said their job has a negative impact on their weight.

Panelist Marjorie Paloma, director of RWJF, explained how job stress and health are influenced by workplace policies:

If you think about the stress a person feels whether because of their day to day work routines, or the stress they feel because of caring for a loved one while working a full time job, or workers who feel as if they have to go into work despite being sick…These are all stressors that influence health.

Succinctly describing the relationship between behaviors and the environment, Paloma stated:

The choices we make are as good as the choices we have.

She summarized this position with the catchy phrase:

Health shapes work, and work shapes health.

“Human Resource Failures”

Harvard Business School professor John Quelch described how workforce management and the intensification of work have been shown to influence health. Quelch bemoaned…

…the sheer overload that comes from downsizing and outsourcing and asking someone to do two jobs when previously they had to do one.

He cited an often overlooked source of stress:

It can also come from job ambiguity — the requirements of the job are not being clearly articulated by supervisors.

Quelch characterized these workforce management patterns as “fundamental human resource failures.”

Gloria Sorensen, from Harvard Chan, cited her team’s studies of health care workers, whose job conditions have been linked to health problems:

Risk of injury or musculoskeletal pain or accidents on the job increase…when we look at harassment on the job, inadequate staffing, bullying at work, high job demands, lack of control, and poor supervisor support.

Sorensen went on to say that these job conditions also have been linked to fatigue, sleep problems, and risk of obesity. She concluded…

The point is these conditions of work are critical when we look at a range of health outcomes for workers.

The panelists’ remarks revealed mixed feelings about conventional worksite wellness programs that focus on behavior change. The poll results showed that only half of workers have access to wellness programs, which at times the panelists, such as Harvard’s Robert Blendon, seemed to cite as an indictment of employers:

Almost half of people who work are at a workplace that has no workplace health program.…People go to work every day, and this is something they read about in a magazine, but they don’t see in their own job.

On the other hand, Paloma remarked…

Worksite wellness is insufficient if it’s not going hand in hand with efforts to improve the health of communities.

Blendon, director of the poll, said that the findings changed his mind about stress. He led an uncomfortable laugh at the expense of conventional stress management strategies, and noted…

Employers should have some responsibility for lowering the level of stress.

NPR’s Joe Neel, the panel’s moderator, summarized…

It’s all about conditions of the workplace and stress.

Kudos to Harvard Chan’s Sorensen, who introduces the audience to the study of job stress in San Francisco transit operators, in which changing the work — such as modifying schedules, training, staffing changes, and equipment upgrades — succeeded in reducing worker stress, whereas, according to Sorensen, previous efforts to change the workers (for example, with stress management programs) failed. For the curious: The research Sorensen cited has been incorporated into an in-depth analysis of stress prevention for bus drivers, available from the International Labour Organization.

The disconnect between the “healthy work” approach and the behavior change emphasis in the panel’s videos, if anything, highlights the need for an acceleration of credible worker health research, which is exactly what NIOSH’s Total Worker Health initiative has set out to do .

In the interim, watch the full one-hour panel here:

 

Getting Axed Is Hazardous To Your Health

February 4, 2016 in Uncategorized, Stress, job strain

You look to your job not only for income and benefits, but also for purpose, social interaction, and daily routine. These influence your health, and the loss of them — or the threat of losing them — can suck the life right out of you.

Every day, millions of Americans either look for work or go to work. Their success at finding and/or maintaining a decent job with good benefits will, to a large degree, determine their current and future health.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Job loss, long periods of unemployment, and job insecurity have all been linked to deteriorating health. Yet, even companies that profess to support employee well-being have been known to contradict themselves by executing mass layoffs as a first line of financial defense rather than a last resort.

Netflix Do-or-Die Culture Deck

The Netflix exec who masterminded the vaunted slide deck about the company’s do-or-die culture boasted about the workers she’d laid off and fired. After being let go in 2015, she “doesn’t like to talk about it.”

As a business strategy, layoffs are a proven fail, a formulaic tactic executed by complacent executives in the absence of genuine leadership skills. Though frequently assumed to be a desperate measure, corporations often lay off workers when business is booming.

Of course, layoffs aren’t the only source of unemployment and job insecurity…

  • Workers get fired due to performance problems.
  • Businesses go belly-up.
  • Some employers foster job insecurity as an ill-fated method to drive productivity.

But mass layoffs — regardless of whether they are euphemistically called reductions-in-force, redundancies, right-sizing, down-sizing, or all-around-the-town-sizing — are responsible for the majority of job loss that is out of workers’ control.

Job Loss and Health

Compared to employed workers, people who have recently lost a job are…

Unemployment and Health

According to Gallup, Americans who have been unemployed for a year or more are more likely to be obese than those unemployed for a shorter time. The obesity rate rises from 22.8%, among those who have been jobless for less than three weeks, to 32.7% among those unemployed for a year or more. Those who have been jobless for more than 26 weeks are twice as likely to have high blood pressure and high cholesterol compared to people who have been unemployed for shorter periods.

Gallup also found that 20% of people unemployed for a year or more suffer from depression — about twice the prevalence compared to people unemployed for less than six weeks.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation points to several pathways from unemployment to deteriorating health:

  • Reduced income, which leads to inadequate nutrition, shelter, and health care.
  • Increased stress and limited access to the physical, mental, and social activity that are underpinnings of well-being.
  • Increased likelihood of engaging in unhealthy behaviors, like alcohol consumption, smoking, and drug use.

Job Insecurity and Health

The jury is still out on whether job insecurity — the threat of involuntary job loss — causes measurable declines in health status, but plenty of studies suggest a connection.

Job insecurity harms health, even more than unemployment.

The World Health Organization

One of the largest investigations of job insecurity and health analyzed data from more than 174,000 workers who were studied for nearly 10 years. It found that workers with job insecurity were 20% more likely to experience life-threatening heart disease compared to others who felt their jobs were a lock.

Research also has found that chronic job insecurity is a strong predictor of deteriorating health, even stronger than smoking or high blood pressure.

Job insecurity can lead to unhealthful behaviors like smoking, a Canadian analysis concluded, and avoidance of healthy behaviors like exercise and taking needed vacation and sick time off. It may even increase the risk of work-related injury and illness.

The relationship between job insecurity and health may depend on job type, economic conditions — how readily a laid off worker can land a new job — and workers’ attitudes about their employment and health. Case studies suggest that availability of social support and services for laid off workers may be differentiators for wellbeing.

Real Leaders Lead: Alternatives to Layoffs

Honeywell CEO Dave Cote doesn’t have a perfect record when it comes to worker well-being,  but his decision to favor furloughs over layoffs during the Great Recession serves as a Harvard Business School case study on how to maintain competitive edge during economic downturns and recoveries. Cote’s process should be required reading for execs who succumb to arguments that layoffs are inevitable.

The benefits of using layoffs to manage costs during a recession didn’t make economic sense…

Harvard Business School

The Wall Street Journal offers a tip sheet suggesting alternatives to layoffs.

Lessons about support for laid off workers also can be learned from the Unnatural Causes video comparing Electrolux layoffs in the US and Sweden and the Nokia Bridge program that granted seed money to laid off workers in Finland.

For workers in America, if you worked at a company like General Electric it’s more like you get a month’s salary and go. They lock the doors on the day you are fired. At Nokia there were people who knew they were going to be laid off in six months and  were able to stay at Nokia with a Nokia email address with the Nokia laptop and spend time applying for new things, and Nokia helped them.

— Ari Tulla, laid off Nokia employee, now co-founder and CEO of BetterDoctor (quoted by BBC)

In a separate post, we’ll explore what we know about the relationship of health and on-demand or “gig” economy jobs, like Uber drivers, Airbnb hosts, Postmates couriers, and TaskRabbit taskers.

 

[If you’d like to comment on this post, please head on over to the LinkedIn version.]

Job Stress Is In Your Head. Literally.

January 12, 2016 in Uncategorized, Stress, job strain

Or…

Half of What I Know About Employee Health
I Learned from Concussion

Concussion is a movie about employee health as much as it’s about anything.

In the movie, the National Football League goes to great lengths to cover up the harm it allows to be inflicted on its players. The league is motivated by fear of liability and its unquenchable thirst for ever-increasing revenue.

Medical examiner Bennett Omalu, MD, a trained neuropathologist played in the movie by Will Smith, determines that several ex-players who died of unnatural causes suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy — CTE. The disease is characterized by long-term damage to specific sections of the brain, where tau proteins surround and choke off brain cells. The damage affects memory, agitation, and anger, and leads to dementia and, reportedly, Alzheimer’s disease. Brain studies were conducted on numerous players who died, including several who committed suicide. Ann McKee, a neuropathologist at Boston University’s CTE Center, reported in 2013 that she’d examined the brains of 46 former football players and found CTE in 45 of them.

Professional football players are employees of their respective teams, and the NFL serves as a sort of trade association for its member teams. For years, the NFL deflected blame for CTE, sometimes onto the players themselves. They pointed their finger to substance abuse (including steroids and alcohol), past history of concussion, and genetics. They downplayed the role of concussion, insisting that “mild traumatic brain injuries are not serious” and that players could safely return to the same game after suffering a concussion.

Ultimately, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million dollars in a settlement with more than 4,500 retired players who sued the league for concealing the issue.  Speaking about the settlement, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, “There was no admission of guilt. There was no recognition that anything was caused by football.”

The settlement included a provision that the NFL would never again compensate players or their families for CTE, which is why, as one example, the family of hall of famer Frank Gifford, diagnosed with CTE post-mortem in November 2015, cannot take action against the NFL.

Football players are an elite group. What does their plight have to do with your job stress?

In another post, Half of What I Know About Wellness I Learned in the First Six Minutes of Joe Vs. the Volcano, I recounted a dialog between Joe and his boss. Joe, it turns out, suffers from “a brain cloud” caused by a black mass running down the center of his brain. His boss insists that Joe stay in the game: “So what!” the boss shouts. “Do you think I feel good? Nobody feels good. I don’t let it interfere with my job!”

Joe’s brain cloud and black brain mass, which viewers are led to believe result from job strain, are the stuff of satire. But is there really a chance that average workers exposed to prolonged job stress suffer brain damage — structural changes in brain tissue with accompanying symptoms?

Yes, there is.

Occupational stress affects signals from the amygdala to the prefrontal cortex

Repetitive stimulation of the amygdala — a result of prolonged job stress — releases chemicals to the medial prefrontal cortex and may cause thinning of the cortex, enlargement of the amygdala and, consequently, a cycle of deteriorating stress modulation, cognitive symptoms, and impaired fine motor function.

In 2014, Ivanka Savic, MD, PhD of Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, published a study that used brain MRIs and showed that prolonged job stress — which included chronic overtime and a cycle of distorted perceptions regarding job demands, abilities, and control — leads to structural changes in the brain.

Compared to the MRIs of demographically matched control subjects, the patients who reported debilitating job stress — and exhibited burnout symptoms like impaired memory and concentration, sleeplessness, achiness, fatigue, and emotional exhaustion — showed abnormalities in the parts of the brain involved with the processing and perception of stress, specifically the prefrontal cortex and the cortex (which were abnormally thin) and the amygdala (abnormally large). These findings were consistent with Savic’s hypothesis that “repeated, chronic stress could lead to damage of the brain areas which modulate stress perception, leading to a vicious cycle with impaired ability to cope with stress.” The MRI findings were supported by documentation of reduced fine-motor skills and emotional regulation in the stressed group compared to the control subjects.

Finally, Dr. Savic concluded, “This condition needs to be considered as a stress illness, whose sufferers deserve proper and swift treatment.”

Dr. Savic summarized her study in her blog post Does Chronic Occupational Stress Cause Brain Damage? (The complete findings were published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.)

While a worker suffering from stress-related ailments may feel, as they go about their business, like they  metaphorically are banging their head against a wall, the analogy between job-stress and football concussions is somewhat tenuous. Here are some ways the two phenomena differ:

  • The research on job-stress-related brain damage is still preliminary.
  • CTE is a result of smashed brains. Job-stress-related brain damage is more subtle, resulting from interactions between an individual’s job and their perceptions, and the resulting chemical activity in the brain.
  • There is no “cover-up” of job-stress-related brain damage that we know of — if for no other reason than most employers don’t know about it.
  • Job-stress-related brain damage has not been linked to behaviors that are as aberrant as those linked to repeated football concussions, nor has it been linked to death (though job stress has been found to be a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease and death).

But there are some similarities, too:

  • Football concussions cause brain damage. Prolonged job stress also appears — based on preliminary research — to cause brain damage.
  • Just as football’s CTE was originally blamed on players (their drug use, history of previous head injury, or genetics), job stress in the United States has commonly been accepted to be solely a consequence of employee perception and coping skills, with employers turning a blind eye to their own role in creating job conditions that cause stress. Instead of empowering you with more control over your workflow, your employer adds a resilience program to your to-do list. In the absence of a broader preventive strategy, resilience programs are for job stress what football helmets are for concussions: Tools to help you endure more pain.
  • NFL players and everyday workers — as well as the enterprises that employ them — will benefit from having these neurological conditions identified and treated as early and effectively as possible.

Ultimately, symptoms of job-stress-related brain damage may prove to be less severe than CTE. But its burden to society — in terms of economics, well-being, and productivity — may be far greater simply due to the vastly larger population at risk.

 


[In addition to the film Concussion, much of the data and quotes for the CTE section of this post were derived from the episode of PBS’s Frontline: League of Denial — The NFL’s Concussion Crisis.]


 

 

 

Mapping Workplace Demons to Health, Costs, and Mortality

May 12, 2015 in Uncategorized, Stress, job design, job strain
Desk worker stressed with long working hours

Photo courtesy of Adam Foster. http://ow.ly/MKMke

The workplace demons that threaten employee health include long work hours, job insecurity, low job control, high job demands, shift work, effort/reward imbalances, role ambiguity, work-family conflict, inadequate workplace social support, and unfair treatment. These can be bucketed in various ways, but whatever you call them, they are the work conditions — controllable by employers — that research has consistently shown to influence employee health and well-being.

Now, along comes a study out of Stanford University that not only endeavors to quantify the burden — in terms of health outcomes, cost, and mortality — of these demons (what the researchers called “stressors” and I sometimes refer to as the workplace determinants of health), but also puts it into context relative to other, more commonly recognized, health issues.

Spoiler alert: More than 120,000 deaths per year and approximately 5% to 8% of annual healthcare costs may be attributable to how U.S. companies manage their workforce, according to this analysis. The mortality rate for these stressors, plus another the researchers found to have significant impact — lack of health insurance — was on par with the fourth and fifth largest causes of death in the U.S.: heart disease and accidents. It was greater than mortality resulting from diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or influenza.

Exposure to the following stressors was found to be more harmful than secondhand tobacco smoke:

  • Lack of health insurance
  • Low organizational justice (fairness)
  • High job demands
  • Shift work
  • Unemployment

And — again, using secondhand smoke as a benchmark — the conditions that had a greater affect on mortality are:

  • Low job control
  • Unemployment
  • Long work hours
  • Lack of health insurance
  • Work-family conflict

The Stanford researchers concluded,

Employers may not make appropriate decisions concerning workplace management if they are unaware of the link between management decisions and employee health and healthcare costs. Our analysis suggests that for such organizations, paying attention to the structure of the workplace and the associated job stressors experienced by their employees may be a fruitful way to reduce unnecessary healthcare costs.

But they acknowledge that employers may have limited motivation to address these issues if, indeed, they’re not on the hook for the costs of health care — for example, in the cases of employees who have been laid off or who are not offered health insurance. The study didn’t delve into associations between stress and productivity.

The analysis was conducted by Joel Goh, Jeffrey Pfeffer, and Stefanos A. Zenios and published in Management Science. Goh is now on the faculty of Harvard Business School.

The researchers are conservative yet insightful in their expectations regarding the implications of their work:

While we stop short of claiming that employer decisions have a definite effect on these outcomes and costs, denying the possibility of an effect is not prudent either. Analyzing how employers affect health outcomes and costs through the workplace decisions they make is incredibly important if we are to more fully understand the landscape of health and well-being.

And what of our current approach to employee well-being, with its slaphappy embrace of screenings, health risk assessments, health coaching, apps, wearables and incentives? How does it jibe with the real determinants of worker health? Not very well, according to study co-author Jeffrey Pfeffer. In his YouTube interview for the Stanford Graduate School of Business, he says,

Employers worry mostly about individual decisions: eating, exercise, smoking, drinking…things like that. Or about policy issues like how we pay for health care. A lot of their excess health care costs come from what happens to people every day in the work environment… Things that employers could fix, if they wanted to.

Read Dr. Pfeffer’s summary of this research in the Fortune article, “Is Your Employer Killing You?


[This post was originally published on Bob Merberg’s Health Shifting blog on May 12, 2015. Edited on March 21, 2018 — minor word changes — for clarity.]