The words “stress” and “workflow” are terms you would expect to find hurled at you, with little meaning, at just about any staff meeting. While you may be able to relate on some level — we all have a workflow of our own, and we all experience stress, after all — when casually used in dense corporate-speak during a boring presentation, we probably don’t pay much attention. But there’s good reason to: Our jobs can and are actually harming our health, in a number of ways. And work-related stress is quickly becoming a more significant worry among health care professionals and workers alike.
The reason? The stress we experience at our jobs can have long-lasting effects that harm our health and shorten our life spans — and we’re only just beginning to get a proper understanding of it.
To get a feel for just how serious of a problem this is, researchers from Harvard and Stanford have linked work-related stress to 120,000 deaths annually — and $190 billion in associated health care costs. Clearly, this is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.
But work is, almost by nature, stressful. If it was easy or fun, you wouldn’t need to pay anybody to do it. So, what can really be done to calm workers down? Many companies are incorporating measures, like relaxation rooms and yoga classes. It’s unclear, however, if that’ll be enough. We need to find out what it is about work that is making people so stressed out.
Luckily, we have some new insight. And it’s all about one of your favorite business jargon terms: workflow.
Stress and control
A new study from the University of Indiana’s Kelley School of Business has pinpointed workflow — or our control over our workflow, to get specific — as one of the primary stressors throwing our health into a tailspin. While we’re all going to get stressed at work, it’s control over our workflow that seems to play an outsized role in stressing us out.
The study is due to be published in the journal Personnel Psychology, and was authored by the Kelley School’s Erik Gonzalez-Mulé along with Bethany Cockburn, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business. According to the paper, “Those in high-stress jobs with little control over their workflow die younger or are less healthy than those who have more flexibility and discretion in their jobs and are able to set their own goals as part of their employment.”
In other words, the more control you have over how you do your job, the better.
“Using a longitudinal sample of 2,363 Wisconsin residents in their 60s over a seven-year period, they found that for individuals in low-control jobs, high job demands are associated with a 15.4 percent increase in the likelihood of death, compared to low job demands,” a UI press release said. “For those in high-control jobs, high job demands are associated with a 34 percent decrease in the likelihood of death compared to low job demands.”
Controlling your workflow
Having narrowed things down to control over workflow, this may or may not help the average worker out. If you have control over your daily workflow already, you’re probably already doing whatever you can to minimize stress. If you don’t have any control? There likely is little you can do to change that.
But this might be something that managers and employers can use to their advantage. If granting a little more freedom and flexibility in how and when tasks are being completed can lead to a happier, healthier workforce, it may pay dividends in increased productivity with fewer costs.
“We explored job demands, or the amount of work, time pressure and concentration demands of a job, and job control, or the amount of discretion one has over making decisions at work, as joint predictors of death,” said Gonzalez-Mulé. “These findings suggest that stressful jobs have clear negative consequences for employee health when paired with low freedom in decision-making, while stressful jobs can actually be beneficial to employee health if also paired with freedom in decision-making.”
If there’s a clear takeaway, according to Gonzalez-Mulé, it’s this: “You can avoid the negative health consequences if you allow them to set their own goals, set their own schedules, prioritize their decision-making and the like.”
Take back your workflow, take back your life.