Yes, you can actually work yourself to death. But is that a surprise? | Sohaila Abdulali


A new study reveals what we all suspected: stressful jobs can kill

When I was 16 years old, I lied about my age and got a job working in the Hostess Twinkie factory in Natick, Massachusetts. Going in at 7 am in my brand new work boots, dollar signs dancing in front of my eyes, I felt mighty good. Coming out at 4 in the afternoon was a different story.

That night, I returned covered in sweet, white chemical goo. I could barely walk and nausea danced a merry jig from my gut up to my eyeballs. You just try standing on the floor with two conveyor belts in front of you, each moving at a different speed. One has Twinkies, one has cardboard boxes, and you have to put six Twinkies in each box. You cant miss one or it squelches on the floor further down the line. You cant vomit no matter how seasick you are. You cant scream. You cant move. You cant pee. You might die if you have to do this one more minute. Turns out, you really might die.

A recent study found that the less control you have over your job, the more likely you are to drop dead. Researchers studied 2,363 Wisconsin residents in their 60s for seven years, and found that those in high-stress jobs with little control over their workflow die younger or are less healthy than those who have more flexibility and discretion in their jobs and are able to set their own goals as part of their employment.

They also found that people with less control in demanding jobs were 15.4% more likely to die than those with more liberty to structure their own timelines and goals. They recommend that employers ease up a bit, for the good of all and suggest job crafting, which involves employees to redesign their jobs to make them more meaningful.

The more freedom employees in stressful jobs have, in other words, the more they flourish. It doesnt matter whether youre in a Twinkie factory or managing a hedge fund if you get to choose when you have your coffee break and what you want to get done before that, youre more likely to be productive, and to live to work another day. If the boss lays off trying to control you all the time, you also get better at your job.

These research subjects were a bunch of 60-year-olds, but the principles easily transfer to managing, say, 6-year-olds. We parents know this give em freedom (or the illusion of freedom) and theyll grow in confidence and become more competent human beings.

Job angst is very real. In Japan, there is a word for dropping dead from work stress: karoshi. However, let us remember the word for dropping dead from no work and no possibility of work: starvation. Sure, spending your days feeling seasick in a Twinkie factory is awful. But spending your days wondering how youre going to feed your children has to be worse.

We dont all have control of our work circumstances, our bosses or too many other factors that box us in to the lives weve (sort of) chosen. But sometimes there are choices even within tight constraints. Herman Melvilles character Bartleby, who had a drab office job, one day simply said: I would prefer not to. He got away with it. Perhaps, armed with scientific proof that the alternative might be a shorter life on this marvelous earth, we can all find some courage and fight to have more autonomy at our jobs.

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