Your Job Or Your Life

Stanford professor: “The workplace is killing people and nobody cares”

I was struck by the story of Robert Chapman, CEO of Barry-Wehmiller, standing in front of 1,000 other CEOs and saying, “You are the cause of the healthcare crisis.”

Jeffrey Pfeffer: It’s true. He takes three points and puts them together. The first point, which is consistent with data reported by the World Economic Forum and other sources, is that an enormous percentage of the health care cost burden in the developed world, and in particular in the U.S., comes from chronic disease–things like diabetes and cardiovascular and circulatory disease. You begin with that premise: A large fraction–some estimates are 75 percent–of the disease burden in the U.S. is from chronic diseases.

Second, there is a tremendous amount of epidemiological literature that suggests that diabetes, cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome—and many health-relevant individual behaviors such as overeating and underexercising and drug and alcohol abuse–come from stress.

And third, there is a large amount of data that suggests the biggest source of stress is the workplace. So that’s how Chapman can stand up and make the statement that CEOs are the cause of the health care crisis: You are the source of stress, stress causes chronic disease, and chronic disease is the biggest component of our ongoing and enormous health care costs.

All of the individual elements of this make sense, though I wonder how it looks when you start putting them together. Do people who work on their feet have fewer health problems than those that sit at a desk? How do alcohol and drug abuse compare between those working and not working? How about those who work longer hours vs shorter hours?

My sense is the picture is a little more complicated.

But something to think about.

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10 thoughts on “Your Job Or Your Life

  1. I used to joke about losing weight doing the “farmer method”. You could eat anything you wanted, if you ate what you grew and you plowed the fields by hand.

    What the guy is complaining about is industrialization, specializations, and non laborious labor. That and crappy advice on what to eat from our dear leaders. (aka food pyramid). How many office drones are willing to go back to being serfs and grow their own food, and essentially be moden day amish? Not many I think.


  2. If a company cared about its employees’ health, as it should both out of common decency and because it’s paying for their insurance, it would modify practices that increase their stress level for little or no monetary gain. I am not holding my breath.



  3. Well, I’d imagine that people who work on their feet have more problems with their feet. Alcohol abuse tends to cut across social class and professions, but I think there probably is a common factor in how people with addiction issues handle stress. I think high stress jobs tend to have more alcoholics and drug users, at least from what I’ve seen.

    We can agree or disagree about his overall argument, but the guy’s got a point that stress can do more physical and cognitive damage than a great many other factors, so it’s in the interest of employers not to foster stressful environments. It’s not nearly the motivator some think it is.


    • I think the case that stress is linked with a lot of bad health factors is pretty straightforwar and correct. What raised some flags in my mind was the “sedentary” (and other more strictly physical) part(s), and the notion that the current health care crisis can be linked to it insofar as things on that particular front are that much worse than they used to be to the point that it tracks with our health care issues. Which I feel is an implication of what he’s saying.


  4. “Wellness plans” are often crap – basically putting the burden for stress on the employee instead of pushing HR or whatever to examine how things are done at the workplace that cause stress. This seems to be particularly common in education. We’re exhorted to “be less stressed” but it’s not like anyone with any power in the issue can see that the stress we experience is not solely internal, but is often caused by policies or things in the workplace that COULD be changed.

    A wellness program that tells people to “reduce stress” by spending an extra hour a day exercising, or by making 30 minutes to meditate or to go do volunteer work on their off time (because that’s supposed to reduce stress? It makes more stress for me) but doesn’t look at the acceleration in what’s expected of people working or the added administrative tasks visited on people or things like the endless “awareness training” that people are increasingly required to do (and that takes time away from the work that must get done) is kind of insulting.


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