Your job may be killing you


I got my first “real” job in my early 20s, working as a reporter at a small newspaper. The editor was a combustible tyrant, going off on rants daily, muttering loudly about one staffer or another, and generally making the lives of everyone in the newsroom as miserable as his probably was. (Funny how that works.)

Within months my left eyelid began to twitch involuntarily. It was my first introduction to the effects of workplace-induced stress. In the ensuing decades I’ve had other stress-filled jobs, some due to a toxic culture, some because I wasn’t a good fit for the position or organization, and some because I simply was doing a crappy job. Whatever the underlying causes, my workplace stress often has manifested itself as depression, insomnia, self-doubts, and even chest pains.

That’s certainly no way to work, and it’s definitely no way to live. Not according to Stanford Graduate School of Business (SGSB) organization behavior professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, whose recently published book, Dying for a Paycheck, chronicles how the stress and pressure of daily work is exacting an increasingly deadly toll on people’s lives while driving up healthcare costs and hampering our economy’s productivity.

Pfeffer cites survey data showing that:

  • 61% of employees claim workplace stress has made them sick
  • 7% of workers say workplace stress led to a hospitalization
  • Job stress costs U.S. employers more than $300 billion each year
  • As many as 120,000 excess deaths in the U.S. may be caused by job stress annually

That last metric relies on some assumptions, starting with the stipulation that up to 75% of diseases in the U.S. are of the chronic kind – including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome (increased blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc.) – which can come from stress. Add in health-impacting individual behaviors such as overeating, drug and alcohol abuse, and inactivity, along with data showing that jobs are our single biggest source of stress, and you begin to understand why Pfeffer argues that job stress is the fifth-leading cause of death in the U.S.

“I look out at the workplace and I see stress, layoffs, longer hours, work-family conflict, enormous amounts of economic insecurity. I see a workplace that has become shockingly inhumane,” Pfeffer says in a recent interview published on the SGSB website.

One major reason why the workplace has become so Darwinian is that we’ve allowed it to, according to Pfeffer.

“There are behaviors with respect to the physical environment that we have decided are impermissible,” he says in the SGSB interview. “You are no longer permitted to burn whatever you want and throw it into the air, or dump whatever chemical you want into the water. Companies have accepted this and now parade their environmental bona fides. Meanwhile, these companies are engaging in all kinds of things that are harming the human beings who work for them.”

One of those things is the fostering of a hypercompetitive workplace environment in which employees are pitted against each other in perpetual competitions to determine who is most productive (or even just puts in the most hours). Pfeffer is skeptical that grueling dynamic will ever change.

“I think people don’t necessarily see, recognize, or appreciate what’s going on in the workplace,” he says. “To the extent that they do, they think it’s inevitable — everyone has to be working long hours and be miserable.”

Yet in their zeal to maximize productivity and profits, Pfeffer says, organizations are hurting themselves.

“There’s data on this — there shouldn’t need to be, but there is — that suggests that when people come to work sick, they’re not as productive,” he tells SGSB’s Dylan Walsh. “Companies have problems with presenteeism — people physically on the job but not really paying attention to what they are doing — with lost workdays from psychological stress and illness, with high health care costs. People are quitting their jobs because of stress. The business costs are enormous.”

Given the rapid adoption of automation, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning, the ingredients are there for the workplace to become even more inhumane as a growing number of human workers are displaced by algorithms and robots that don’t take sick days or goof off on Facebook or Instagram.

So what to do? Pfeffer’s book urges individuals and organization leaders to recognize the human and economic costs of toxic, inhumane workplaces, much as we as a society collectively became aware of – and then intolerant of — greed-driven environmental abuses. Pfeffer calls for a social movement that is focused on human sustainability.

Do you think the nature of markets, competition, and technological change make “human sustainability” an unattainable goal? Or do you believe Pfeffer overstates his case about the impact of workplace stress on human health and overall productivity? And have you suffered from job-related health and behavioral issues? If you’ve got answers to any of those questions, as well as any insights, observations, and suggestions regarding job-related stress, please leave a comment below.


  1. Yep, everyone knows it and still, there are not many things to do about it (or maybe this is just me not thinking outside the box;). Any practical tips for finding the balance?:)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: