Friendly, Nice Co-workers Help You Live Longer

on August 09 2011 1:14 AM

Most of our lives are divided by sleep and work, with the latter taking precedence over our days. Many feel that the day to day drudgery adds more stress than dollars, and try to alleviate the bad feelings with various leisure activities for medical benefits.

A new study from Tel Aviv University revealed that our work places have a genuine impact on our longevity. The researchers tracked 820 adults for twenty years, starting with a routine health examination in 1988.

The subjects worked in various professions, from finance to manufacturing to health care. They were interviewed repeatedly about conditions at their workplace, from the behavior of the boss to the niceness of their colleagues.

Over the ensuing decades, their health was closely monitored, allowing the scientists to control for various medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, smoking and depression.

The biggest discovery regarded office conditions. In particular, the risk of death seemed to correlate with the perceived niceness of co-workers, as less friendly colleagues were associated with a higher risk of dying and friendly co-workers helped to alleviate the stress.  In contrast, the niceness of the boss had little impact on mortality.

The main feeling of office stress is linked to absence of control.

The most impressive support for the research comes from the Whitehall study, an exhaustive longitudinal survey launched in 1967 that tracked some 28,000 British men and women working in central London.

After tracking thousands of civil servants for decades, the Whitehall data revealed that between the ages of 40 and 64, workers at the bottom of the hierarchy had a mortality rate four times higher than that of people at the top. Even after accounting for genetic risks and behaviors like smoking and binge drinking, civil servants at the bottom of the pecking order still had nearly double the mortality rate.

The study included self-reports of participants who noted a recurring theme of people who stated that it wasn't the sheer amount of stress, but the total absence of control.  This led to the "demand-control" model of stress, in which the damage caused by chronic stress depends not just on the demands of the job but on the extent to which we can control our response to those demands.

The Whitehall data backs up this model of workplace stress: While a relentlessly intense job like a senior executive position leads to a slightly increased risk of heart disease and death, a job with no control is significantly more dangerous.

And this brings us back to the Israeli data. While men in unfriendly workplaces fared worse when they had little control, women actually seemed to fare better. One possibility cited by the researchers is that having a modicum of control at the office exacerbated the tensions between the office and home. Because many of the women were also mothers, having control left them with an extremely stressful series of choices involving family. This freedom compounded the stress of the unfriendly workplace. Control without support was even worse than having no control at all.

The Israeli study continues to help researchers determine if there are correlations involving gender, age and workplaces of other countries. However, the study does remind us that our work matters and can take a larger toll on our lives than we may have considered.

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