Happy EmployeesSo, imagine that you are an employee at a large corporation. You come in to work each day and you dread being there. You have a sordid relationship with your coworkers. That relationship manifests itself in a variety of ways, especially in how you and your co-workers treat each other. You and your co-workers seldom laugh, you regularly quarrel, and your communication is almost always task-related. You would never say that you have “friends” at your office; rather, you simply have co-workers. The culture of the organization where you work is negative, antagonistic, and pessimistic. You like the work that you do, but you hate the people that you have to work with.

Sound familiar? For many Americans, this is daily life in the workplace.

Guess what?? This regular struggle to create positive relationships with your coworkers may be slowly killing you.

Back in May, the American Psychological Association (disclosure, I am a member) released a press release that reported on the results of a resent journal article published in the journal Health Psychology (2011, Vol. 30, No. 3, p. 268–275). That article, titled Work-Based Predictors of Mortality: A 20-Year Follow-Up of Healthy Employees, reported on a longitudinal study of 820 employees in Israel, first enrolled in 1988 (and then regularly checked through the following 20 year period until 2008). The researchers were exploring the effects of peer and supervisor support (along with control and workload) on mortality. Here is a summary of the results from their abstract:

“Only one main effect was found: the risk of mortality was significantly lower for those reporting high levels of peer social support. The study found two significant interactions. Higher levels of control reduced the risk of mortality for the men and increased it for the women. The main effect of peer social support on mortality risk was significantly higher for those whose baseline age ranged from 38 to 43 but not for the older than 43 or the younger than 38 participants.”

I included this direct quote for those of you out there who know how to read scientific results (and, for any of my research methods students reading this). However, I will summarize in some plain language. First, these researchers found that those people who reported high levels of social support had lower instances of mortality (death). However, that finding alone isn’t the important part of the study (albeit incredibly interesting). Interestingly, women who reported higher levels of control had increases in mortality. This wasn’t the case for men — for them, having control in their workplaces reduced mortality. This is both an interesting and somewhat troubling finding.

Let’s look at the first finding — that positive social peer interactions significantly lowered the risk of mortality among these participants. It should be noted that 53 participants during the 20-year study did die. However, those who did reported lower levels of positive engagement with their co-workers, holding constant many other aspects of their health and working life (control variables). While this finding is scary, it is not new. Researchers have discovered a variety of findings linking the social relationships we have with others with health. In fact, Sheldon Cohen and his colleagues at Carnegie Melon University (and the University of Pittsburgh) was one of the first to discover some of the links between social relationships and health. He discovered that those individuals who reported a larger and more positive social network have more robust immune systems (in one famous study, these people had fewer symptoms of the common cold). Indeed, enjoying our co-workers and our working environments may produce some very positive health benefits. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to love the work they do AND the people they do it with? The only troubling part about this finding is that, with many things in life, we sometimes have few choices in deciding who our co-workers are, but we do have control over how we develop our relationships with those people.

Sure, there are those people who are just reprehensible. Let’s forget about them for just a second. Instead, let’s focus on those people who we have limited relationships with in our working environment. As a member of that organization, don’t you deserve the ability to enjoy the place you work? Sure you do! Therefore, why not try and develop good and positive working relationships with these people? The little changes that you can make to an organization’s culture may have a profound effect on your health as well as the health of others. At the end of the day, you should make decisions about your employment based on a variety of factors and the working environment should be one of those factors (no…I am not telling you to quit your job tomorrow).

As for the finding on control for men and women on mortality, this quote is telling from the APA’s press release:

“Asked why workplace control was positive for men but not women, the lead researcher, Arie Shirom, PhD,  said that for employees in blue-collar type of jobs (and most respondents belonged to this category), high levels of control were found in jobs typically held by men, rather than jobs typically held by women. “Providing partial support to our finding, a past study found that for women in blue-collar jobs, having low levels of control does not increase their risk of becoming ill with stress-related disorders,” Shirom said.”

I think that finding needs a post all by itself, but it is an interesting start to the exploration of what may make for a healthy and happy workplace and what may not. Consider these issues when you are looking to work for a new company, considering the relationships you have with your coworkers, and are making important decisions about having a healthy future with support@work.

So…what do you think?? Use the comment feature below to discuss this.