Could Your Job Actually Kill You? Lack Of Autonomy, Stress At Work Horrible For Health


Researchers warn that burdensome demands at the office mixed with lack of job control can lead to depression — and potentially death — for struggling employees.


BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — If you’ve ever felt like your job is killing you, turns out you weren’t being overdramatic after all. A new study shows that one’s health is strongly linked to the level of autonomy they enjoy on the job, their typical workload and job demands, and their ability to deal with these on-the-job stressors.

It’s an incredibly common scene; the haggard worker stumbling home at night after working late at the office, all to satisfy an overbearing and impossible to please boss. The vast majority of the modern workforce have simply accepted that micromanagement, stress, and exorbitant workloads are a fact of life, but at what point do these expectations and rules go too far? Researchers at Indiana University say it’s important for employees to recognize when it may be time to make a change.

“When job demands are greater than the control afforded by the job or an individual’s ability to deal with those demands, there is a deterioration of their mental health and, accordingly, an increased likelihood of death,” explains Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources at the Kelley School and the study’s lead author, in a release.

“We examined how job control — or the amount of autonomy employees have at work — and cognitive ability — or people’s ability to learn and solve problems — influence how work stressors such as time pressure or workload affect mental and physical health and, ultimately, death,” he continues. “We found that work stressors are more likely to cause depression and death as a result of jobs in which workers have little control or for people with lower cognitive ability.”

The main culprit here appears to be lack of control or autonomy. More professional responsibilities or expectations were actually found to improve overall health and lower one’s risk of death when combined with more freedom while at work.

“We believe that this is because job control and cognitive ability act as resources that help people cope with work stressors,” Gonzalez-Mulé theorizes. “Job control allows people to set their own schedules and prioritize work in a way that helps them achieve their work goals, while people that are smarter are better able to adapt to the demands of a stressful job and figure out ways to deal with stress.”

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For their research, the study’s authors analyzed data originally collected from 3,148 Wisconsin residents for the long-term research project known as the Midlife in the United States Survey. Over the 20-year course of that project, 211 of the participants passed away.

“Managers should provide employees working in demanding jobs more control, and in jobs where it is unfeasible to do so, a commensurate reduction in demands. For example, allowing employees to set their own goals or decide how to do their work, or reducing employees’ work hours, could improve health,” Gonzalez-Mulé notes. “Organizations should select people high on cognitive ability for demanding jobs. By doing this, they will benefit from the increased job performance associated with more intelligent employees, while having a healthier workforce.

COVID-19 might be causing more mental health issues, so it’s particularly important that work not exacerbate those problems,” he concludes. “This includes managing and perhaps reducing employee demands, being aware of employees’ cognitive capability to handle demands and providing employees with autonomy are even more important than before the pandemic began.”

The study is published in the Journal of Applied Psychology. 

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