Is Your Overbearing Boss Hurting Your Health?

A new study links your job workload and freedom to long-term mental health outcomes—including a risk of early death.

by Sarah Ellis Health Writer

Whether you’re working from home these days, going to work in person, or are in-between jobs, your routine has no doubt changed—in a big way—during the past few months. And while some companies are providing their employees with mental health resources, community support, and increased flexibility during this time, others are continuing to forge ahead at full speed without acknowledging the troublesome things happening in our world. This could come at the expense of employees’ well-being, and even their physical health.

According to a new study from Indiana University, feeling overwhelmed at work without the ability to change your situation can lead to feelings of depression that contribute to an early death. It’s heavy, we know. But in stark contrast, feeling engaged and independent at work (even when you have a lot on your plate) can help you live longer.

“Our study suggests that a healthy workplace culture results from the ability to make decisions about the way you do your work,” explains Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, PhD, assistant professor of Organizational Behavior and Human Resources at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. Your job plays a way bigger role in your overall health and happiness than you might think, so it’s helpful to know what to look for in a company—and what to do to make your existing work situation more tolerable, even during a difficult time.

Your Job, Your Health

Leslie Hammer, PhD, co-director of the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, Oregon, says there is still a great need to help people understand the relationship between their job life and their health. “The general public doesn’t necessarily recognize job stress as a critical factor in mental or physical health,” she explains. “However, it is a really important factor to be considering, and there’s a lot of research that has already demonstrated its significant relationship to mental and physical health outcomes.”

Even before this new study came out, the correlation between job stress and mental health was well-documented. A 2017 nationwide survey by CareerBuilder found that 61% of U.S. workers feel burned out, and 31% say they are stressed or extremely stressed at work. People in higher positions within a company (senior management and leadership) are the least stressed of anyone–which, of course, means people in lower-paying jobs are carrying the bulk of the burnout. Symptoms of workplace stress include anger issues, depression, and insomnia.

Organizational structure and environment contribute to these feelings of high pressure and anxiety amongst workers. In a 2016 survey by the American Psychological Association, only 44% of employees said their workplace culture supported employee well-being. Workplace stress has also been tied to decreased productivity. A 2019 survey by insurance company Colonial Life found that more than 20% of workers spend at least five hours per week (on the clock) thinking about their stress. This leads to billions of dollars wasted by employers because of chronically stressed-out workers.

Job Control vs. Job Demands

In the Indiana University study, Gonzalez-Mulé and co-author Bethany Cockburn did find a correlation between high job demands and negative health outcomes – but it’s not quite as simple as that. A combination of two key factors work together to determine job stress: job demands and job control.

“You can think of job demands as the stressors in one’s work (amount of work, number of tight deadlines, amount of concentration needed), while job control is the autonomy, discretion, and flexibility [with which] people get to do their work,” Gonzalez-Mulé explains. “Our study suggests that neither, in isolation, is good or bad–instead, having too many job demands combined with low job control is harmful to mental health.”

This draws from a model called the job demand-control (JDC) model, developed in 1979 by sociologist Robert Karasek. Karasek asserted that high levels of demand at work, combined with low control over those demands, leads to low overall well-being among employees. This was later expanded on to include low job support (from a boss, superior or other colleagues) as an added workplace stressor.

Hammer explains that this can impact our health in several ways.

“People under high job stress don’t exercise enough, or they may not take the time to cook healthy meals because they’re overwhelmed with the stress from work,” she says. “They may end up smoking more or drinking more as a way of coping with that high stress.” Stress also has a negative impact on the body: it can elevate your blood pressure, increase cortisol (known as the “stress hormone”), and contribute to GI symptoms like bloating, nausea, and abdominal pain.

Chronic Conditions and Job Stress

“If you already are experiencing decrements to mental and physical health, that’s stressful,” Hammer says. “If you already have stressors, and then you’re adding on more stressors, that puts you at higher risk.”

You likely know the feeling of sleepless nights after a scary health diagnosis, or the worry you feel waiting to hear back from the doctor after a test. During the coronavirus pandemic, you carry the added burden of fear for your life if you’re high-risk. If your employer isn’t paying attention to your needs (or paying attention to the news much at all), it feels like the onus is on you to look out for yourself–even though you shouldn’t have to take everything on at once.

In a survey by Gallup, 52% of employees strongly agree that their employer has communicated a clear action plan to address the coronavirus, and 49% of full-time workers strongly agree that their organization cares about their well-being. 55% of full-time employees strongly agreed that they felt well-prepared to do their job. This is a start, but the data leaves millions of people out–including part-time workers, many of whom may work multiple jobs. Hammer says that workplaces need to take the lead when it comes to employee well-being. “I believe it is workplaces’ responsibility to take care of individuals,” she says.

What You Can Do

Gonzalez-Mulé and Cockburn did find a piece of good news in their study: job demands actually contribute to better physical health and a longer lifespan when combined with high control. So, for instance, if you have a ton of work to do, but lots of flexibility around your schedule, your environment, or your daily output, you may actually end up happier and healthier in the long run.

“We suspect this might be because job demands can actually be energizing and motivating, but only when combined with enough resources, like job control, to keep you from feeling overwhelmed,” Gonzalez-Mulé says.

So, one thing you can do to improve your work life is to ask your boss for more flexibility, if that’s something your job allows you to do. Interestingly, working from home has been linked to higher job productivity, so that may be one advantage of this current quarantine moment. If you’re more productive at work with more space and time to yourself, you’re helping build a case to be granted more flexibility in the coming years.

Here are some other ideas for lessening your job stress in these challenging months. Of course, much of your ability to make these changes depends on the resources afforded to you at work, which is why, as Hammer states, these same changes need to come from the top down.

  • Look for jobs that will have your back. Hammer explains that the best time to look for a healthy work environment is when you’re in the job seeking phase. “When they’re looking for jobs, they can keep an eye out and pay attention to what those job demands are, and how much autonomy and control is available,” she says. Think job demands and job control when you’re searching for options.

  • Develop a support network. “There are ways within the organization to be associated with people who provide social support,” Hammer says, such as coworkers or your boss. Try to form relationships with people you work closely with, so you can have some sense of community to help you cope with stress.

  • Use as many benefits as you can. For people lucky enough to have PTO, mental health days, and the like–take them! Hammer urges employees to make use of the resources provided to them. A 2017 Glassdoor survey found that the average U.S. employee has taken only 54% of their allotted vacation time.

  • Be honest with your boss. “It’s important for individuals to let their supervisors know when it’s too much, when they need some adjustments, when they need more flexibility,” Hammer says. In turn, it’s fair to expect that your boss will try to work with you to improve your well-being. If they don’t, and if you’re able to look for work elsewhere, it’s probably time to think about moving on.

Sarah Ellis
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is a wellness and culture writer who covers everything from contraceptive access to chronic health conditions to fitness trends. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in NYC. She has written for Elite Daily, Greatist, mindbodygreen and others. When she’s not writing, Sarah loves distance running, vegan food, and getting the most out of her library card.