How Being in Control of Your Work Drastically Reduces Stress (and just might save your life)

Last month Wired Magazine published a fascinating article on the science of stress called Under Pressure: The Search for a Stress Vaccine. The essence of the article is that while it’s becoming understood that stress has negative emotional, cognitive, and physical effects, we don’t fully understand the depths of what causes stress (for instance, the article talks about how stress endured during childhood or even by a mother during pregnancy can permanently change your DNA), which forms of stress are good for us and which ones are detrimental, nor do we fully understand how to go about “solving” stress (i.e. just telling yourself to “relax” doesn’t necessarily address root causes).

One study cited in the article that really caught my eye was The Whitehall Study. The study, performed by professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London, Michael Marmot, has tracked 28,000+ British civil servants of various positions in the hierarchical government structure. His findings are particularly interesting, and go a long way in explaining why the stresses of some jobs, like those faced by a small business owner or a CEO who work long hours, don’t appear to have adverse health effects of anywhere near the same magnitude of those working more menial jobs. In a nutshell, it all boils down to doing work that you find purposeful, that you have a vested interest in. In other words, work that you can control.

At the bottom [of the hierarchy] are messengers, porters, and security guards. Just above them are the clerical officers, followed by staff scientists and other professionals. This last group implements the policies dictated by powerful administrators who run the governmental agencies. Marmot wanted to investigate how differences in status “in people who are neither very poor nor very rich” might lead to measurable differences in health.

The differences are dramatic. After tracking thousands of civil servants for decades, Marmot was able to demonstrate that between the ages of 40 and 64, workers at the bottom of the hierarchy had a mortality rate four times higher than that of people at the top. Even after accounting for genetic risks and behaviors like smoking and binge drinking, civil servants at the bottom of the pecking order still had nearly double the mortality rate of those at the top.

What, then, determines our health? Why were people in the lower ranks of Whitehall dying at a younger age? Marmot was forced to conclude that the significant majority of health variation is caused by psychosocial factors, most notably stress. People of lower status in the Whitehall study experienced more negative stress, and this stress was deadly. (To take but one data point: Fully two-thirds of an individual’s risk of stroke was attributable to the person’s socioeconomic status.) In fact, we’re so sensitive to the effects of status that getting promoted from the lowest level in the British civil service reduced the probability of heart disease by up to 13 percentage points. Climbing the social ladder makes us live longer.

However, the Whitehall results aren’t a straightforward analysis of stress, at least not as it’s usually defined. After all, people in leadership positions often describe their jobs as extremely stressful. They work longer hours and have more responsibilities than those at the bottom of the bureaucratic hierarchy. Consider the self-report of Nigel, a high-status administrator: “There were 2,000 people, and I was responsible for all the personnel aspects, contracts, and all the common services … It had every sort of challenge that you could ever wish to meet. A very active job and a lot of stress, but a very enjoyable job, and you got a tremendous amount of satisfaction from doing a good job.”

Notice the reference to stress; undoubtedly Nigel thought of himself as a person under lots of pressure. In contrast, here’s the self-report of Marjorie, a lowly typist: “I went to the typing pool and sat there typing documents. Which was absolutely soul-destroying … The fact that we could eat sweets and smoke was absolute heaven, but we were not allowed to talk.”

The recurring theme in the self-reports of people like Marjorie isn’t the sheer amount of stress – it’s the total absence of control. Researchers call it the “demand-control” model of stress, in which the damage caused by chronic stress depends not just on the demands of the job but on the extent to which we can control our response to those demands. “The man or woman with all the emails, the city lawyer who works through the night has high demands,” Marmot writes. “But if he or she has a high degree of control over work, it is less stressful and will have less impact on health.” (This helps explain why the women with mean bosses and menial work showed the highest incidence of heart disease.) The Whitehall data backs up this model of workplace stress: While a relentlessly intense job like a senior executive position leads to a slightly increased risk of heart disease and death, a job with no control is significantly more dangerous.

The same effect applies even to the rich and famous. A few years ago, Donald Redelmeier, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, led a study of Academy Award-winning actors. His hypothesis was that having an Oscar gave people more control over their stressful careers. Instead of being forced to accept bad roles or work on mediocre movies just for the money, these stars could pick and choose their parts. This creative control, in turn, would lead to improved health outcomes. Redelmeier compared the award winners to two groups: (1) actors who had appeared in the same film as a nominated actor and didn’t get a nomination and (2) actors who had been nominated for an Academy Award but never won. The results were clear: People with Oscars lived, on average, four years longer than their less-successful peers, which represented a 28 percent reduction in death rate. As Redelmeier notes, this longevity boost is roughly equal to the effect that would come from “curing all cancers in all people for all time.”

The moral is that the most dangerous kinds of stress don’t feel that stressful. It’s not the late night at the office that’s going to kill us; it’s the feeling that nothing can be done. The person most at risk for heart disease isn’t the high-powered executive anxious about their endless to-do list – it’s the frustrated janitor stuck with existential despair.

4 comments on How Being in Control of Your Work Drastically Reduces Stress (and just might save your life)

  1. Rob says:

    So true, all of this. I’ve so many friends and relations that have been on the receiving end of such stress-causing situations and could attest to this.

    Obviously people at the top can come under similar stress when some form of control is removed – eg. for an airline boss when a plane goes down, or when loans are being called in etc.

    I wonder how the separated out some effects though? As we know, correlation does not imply causation, so what about socio-economic factors of those at the bottom of the pile?

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Good point Rob. Certainly someone at the top has more money and probably less financial stress. The article did mention that one of the unique things about the study was the uniformity, in the sense that at least the people at the bottom of the ladder were still making a live-able wage with good benefits:

      “What makes the Whitehall study so compelling is its uniformity. Every subject is a British civil servant, a cog in the vast governmental bureaucracy. They all have access to the same health care system, don’t have to worry about getting laid off, and spend most of their workdays shuffling papers.”

  2. Tim says:

    Very interesting concept. Not really my area of expertise but looking around me I can see the friend stuck in the dead end jobs with no drive to do anything about it, and totally miserable about it falling into this category. On that same note, the group of friends who all have promising careers or businesses of their own are all growing closer and the 9-5 dead end job crowd are all slowly drifting away.

    • Adam McFarland says:

      I do find that there’s that same divide among my friends. Not really intentionally, but I naturally have more in common with the people who all run businesses and are career driven, as compared to the 9-5’ers who I can see slowly losing interest.

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