By Monica Torres
No good employer is going to outright say that they kill you, but new research finds that too many modern workplaces are grim reapers inflicting a fatal amount of stress on our bodies and minds.
Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford, is ringing the alarm that job stress and poor management is killing us — accounting for up to 8% of annual health costs and leading to 120,000 excess deaths every year in the United States.
In his new book, “Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance — and What We Can Do About It,” he explains how long hours, a lack of job autonomy through micromanagement, and unstable health insurance are making us sick to death.
He talked with Ladders about his research and what leads otherwise reasonable people to stay in toxic jobs:
We don’t track it, so there’s no accountability
Pfeffer defines one of the main culprits that is making us sick as “social pollution,” or harmful workplace practices that take a psychological and physical toll on employees. Social pollution is what happens when your employer makes you lose your work-life balance. Work always comes first.
As one Salesforce marketing executive in the book put it, “You have all this shame and embarrassment because you are stressed and think it’s you. I felt like my brain literally did not work. I literally could not remember conversations ten seconds later.”
When your job’s daily requirements are making you overwhelmed, you are in a socially polluted environment that is leeching away your mental energy. For social polluters to be stopped, they need to be shamed through metrics of what they are doing to employees.
“At the moment, employers measure efficiency and productivity and that’s fine, but that’s all they are measuring, so that’s all, therefore, they are paying attention to. If employers began to measure employee health, they might pay a little attention to that as well. Without measurement, it will never get on anyone’s radar screen,” Pfeffer said.
Pfeffer wants employers to regain a sense of stewardship for their employees’ wellbeing. And for employers lacking this nurturing feeling, we would need to step in to create and monitor it.
“We can use public admonition and social pressure to produce healthier workplaces,” Pfeffer writes in his book. “This entails having companies pay their share of the costs of ill-health that they create, costs that are now largely externalized and borne by society at large.”
Nap pods aren’t going to cure this
Pfeffer’s book makes the argument that wellness initiatives of yoga rooms and nap pods are a band-aid solution to the larger problem of toxic stress that employers need to address.
“If your employees were not exhausted, they would not need to take a nap,” he said. “A lot of this is an attempt to remediate: ‘I’m going to keep you at work all the time so I’m going to try to make that workplace a little more comfortable for you. Give you better lighting, some food.’ But the research shows pretty convincingly that prevention is much more effective than remediation.
“It would be better if we gave you a job environment — including bosses, coworkers to provide social support, etc — so that you did not need that stuff.”
Why reasonable people will not leave toxic jobs
Usually, we recognize that a job is bad for us when we wake up in cold sweats because of it … when we need to take pills to get through another long day. And yet, too many of us still will not leave jobs that are clearly bad for our wellbeing. Why? Pfeffer says ego plays a large role.
Ego is the voice telling you that if you were any good, you could put up with the demands and the stress. It’s the one taunting you that quitters are weak. It’s the inner voice that says you could tough it out one more quarter, one more year. Pfeffer interviewed one General Electric executive who said his bosses would ask him, “Aren’t you good enough to be a GE leader?” when he felt doubts.
“I think many competent, wonderful people are very susceptible to the play on the ego. I think that’s the one I see used most frequently and successfully,” Pfeffer said. “People stay even when they know they should leave.”
To escape this tunnel vision, Pfeffer says that we have to stop accepting the unacceptable and leave toxic work situations, no matter the company prestige or how interesting the work is to do.
“Be willing to admit that in choosing an employer, as in any other decision you make, it is possible to make a mistake and, once having admitted that mistake, to act to correct it,” he cautions in his book. “Until people take responsibility for finding places where they can thrive, we can’t expect our employers to value health, either.”