Press Releases

2000 Releases

Job Stress Taxes Health

For immediate release: May 26, 2000 

Boston, MA--Women in jobs that entail high work demands, low levels of job control, and who have little workplace social support are more likely to suffer poor health, and to have their health decline, than are women who have more flexible jobs with reasonable demands and social support. These are the findings by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health, published in the May 27, 2000 British Medical Journal.

The researchers studied responses from 21,290 nurses who completed surveys designed to elicit information about individual's jobs and health status. The participating women returned questionnaires in 1992 and again in 1996. As previous studies have predicted, those who described their jobs as stressful were more likely to have lower health status from the onset than those whose jobs were more pleasant.

This research went a step further than previous studies, however, and quantified the change in health status over time. The study looked at broad, quality-of-life health issues such as the ability to carry out daily household chores, social support, and general mental health. The researchers found that those whose jobs allowed them to participate in decision-making, and that utilized a variety of skills, had health that remained largely unchanged over the four-year study. Those who described their work as being low in job control, high in job demand, or who reported low levels of work-related social support had health that began low and worsened over the course of the study.

"Some jobs are inherently stressful," said Ichiro Kawachi, Associate Professor of Health and Social Behavior and one of the study's authors. "What we found is that regardless of how healthy or resilient a person is, the job stress can affect her health."

According to Kawachi, the difficulty of this type of research is that everyone feels that his or her job is stressful. The questionnaire used in this work allowed the researchers to distinguish between the types of stress that are felt by managers and those experienced by workers lower in the hierarchy. Managers and executives typically enjoy some freedom of self-managing their tasks, while other workers have little control over their workdays and have their tasks assigned and scheduled for them.

"Previous studies have linked job strain to hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cigarette smoking, psychosomatic symptoms, depression, and adverse birth outcomes," write the authors. "This study shows that job strain also has broader health effects," said Kawachi, "and those effects get worse as the job strain continues."

The authors recommend that these findings be used by employers as incentive for restructuring jobs to give more workplace control to employees. "If workers are able to participate in decision making and have some flexibility and control over their jobs," said Kawachi, "then employers would be rewarded with fewer employee absences for health and even lower health insurance rates."

The participants were part of the Nurses' Health Study, which was initiated in 1976 at Brigham and Women's Hospital. It is the longest major women's health study ever undertaken and has resulted in hundreds of journal articles, many containing groundbreaking findings on how to prevent some of the major causes of disease and death in women.

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Director of Communications
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, Massachusetts 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752
Email: rherman@hsph.harvard.edu