Individuals in highly demanding jobs who have little control over their workflow tend to have worse mental health and are at increased risk of death compared to those with more autonomy, according to new research in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
“This study was a follow-up to a study we did in 2017, where we examined how job demands, or the amount of stressors — like concentration demands, time pressure, and workload — relate to death,” explained study author Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, an assistant professor at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business.
“In that study, we found that job control, or the autonomy you have to choose how to do your work, when to do it, and the like, makes job demands more likely to cause death when control is low, and less likely to cause death when control is high. In this study, we sought to replicate those findings, examining the specific mechanisms (i.e., changes in physical and mental health) and whether some individuals are more susceptible to the deleterious effects of job demands than others.”
For their new study, the researchers analyzed data from 3,148 individuals who participated in the Midlife in the United States Survey, a nationally representative, longitudinal study examining the role of behavioral, psychological, and social factors in physical and mental health. Out of their sample, 211 of participants died over the course of the 20-year-long study.
High job demands were related to poorer mental health, which in turn was linked to an increased likelihood of death, when participants had relatively little control over their work (such as the one’s ability to make decisions at work, decide what to work on, and decide how to complete one’s work). High job demands were also related to the likelihood of death via poor mental health among those who scored low on a test of cognitive ability.
“Stressors at work are more likely to cause declines in mental health and, ultimately, death for jobs in which workers have little autonomy, or for people with lower cognitive ability. Cognitive ability, also known as intelligence, impacts people’s ability to solve problems and learn. People that are smarter are better able to adapt to the demands of the job and suffer less harm than those that are not as smart. In this way, high cognitive ability can act as a substitute when job control is low,” Gonzalez-Mulé told PsyPost.
High job demands were associated with better physical health and a lower likelihood of death when workers had more autonomy, but were not associated with physical health when workers had little autonomy. “The results for physical health were more mixed and inconclusive,” Gonzalez-Mulé said.
The findings indicate that allowing employees to set their own goals or decide how to do their work could their improve mental health.
“We hope that our research helps employers and employees realize the risks associated with demanding jobs (poor health and death) without compensatory mechanisms in place to help alleviate those risks. We particularly encourage employers to consider the amount of job control, as well as their employees’ cognitive ability, when designing work in a way that maximizes efficiency and productivity without harming employees well-being,” Gonzalez-Mulé said.
To better understand the relationship between work stressors and health, future research could differentiate between job challenges that evoke feelings of fulfillment and work-related hindrances that cause frustration.
“Our measure of job demands did not differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ stressors. The literature has increasingly shown that challenges at work, like facing a tight deadline, are ‘good’ stressors and can actually be motivating and energizing, while hindrances, like red tape and hassles, are ‘bad’ stressors and result in burnout. There is a need for further investigation into whether the effects of these stressors on health and the likelihood of death are bounded similarly by job control and cognitive ability,” Gonzalez-Mulé explained.
The study, “This Job Is (Literally) Killing Me: A Moderated-Mediated Model Linking Work Characteristics to Mortality“, was authored by Erik Gonzalez-Mulé and Bethany S. Cockburn.