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Why Work Stress Could Actually Be Good For Your Health

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Illustration by Tristan Offit.
With the ubiquity of mindfulness, yoga and overpriced candles marketed as a great way to help us "de-stress", you'd be forgiven for thinking stress is always bad for our health and should be avoided at all costs.

So you might be surprised to hear the results of a new study suggesting that some stress at work could actually be beneficial for our health and reduce the risk of death.

But it is only beneficial if we have some control over the stressful situation.

Researchers, writing in the journal Personnel Psychology, followed 2,363 people in their sixties for seven years from 2004 and found that those in high-stress jobs who had freedom and control were 34% less likely to have died than those in less stressful roles.

However, those in high-stress jobs with little freedom to make their own decisions were most likely to be unhealthy and die earlier, the study found. This group were 15.4% more likely to die than those in less stressful roles.

“These findings suggest that stressful jobs have clear negative consequences for employee health when paired with low freedom in decision-making," said Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, the paper's lead author. "While stressful jobs can actually be beneficial to employee health if also paired with freedom in decision-making.”

So what exactly is it about a lack of control at work that is bad for us?

The study, conducted by the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, also found that those in high-stress jobs with low control had a higher body mass index (BMI) than those in high-stress jobs with greater autonomy.

"When you don't have the necessary resources to deal with a demanding job, you do this other stuff," Gonzalez-Mulé said. "You might eat more, you might smoke, you might engage in some of these things to cope with it."

Cancer was the most common cause of death among the research participants, with 55% of the sample dying from it. Circulatory system problems, such as heart failure, caused 22% of deaths and problems with the respiratory system caused 8% of deaths.

The results of the study suggest we could all benefit from greater freedom and control over our decisions at work, even our employers, said Gonzalez-Mulé.

Negative health consequences can be avoided by allowing employees to set their own goals and schedules and to prioritise their own decision-making, he added.

“Stressful jobs cause you to find ways to problem-solve and work through ways to get the work done. Having higher control gives you the resources you need to do that."

A stressful job can be "energising" rather than "debilitating", he said. “You are able to set your own goals, you are able to prioritise work. You can go about deciding how you are going to get it done. That stress then becomes something you enjoy.”

Feeling frazzled and lacking in independence at work? Try forwarding this study to your boss and let us know how you get on.
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