Getting along with your colleagues at work may do more than boost your productivity. It may also be a boon to your health.
Researchers at Tel Aviv University found that people who felt that they had the support of their colleagues and generally positive social interactions at work were less likely to die over a 20-year period than those who reported a less friendly work environment. Over all, people who believed they had little or no emotional support in the workplace were 2.4 times as likely to die during the course of the study compared with the workers who developed stronger bonds with their peers in other cubicles.
To study how office politics influenced health, the researchers recruited 820 adults who visited a local health clinic in 1988 for routine checkups, then interviewed them about their jobs, asking detailed questions that delved into whether they found their supervisors and peers approachable, friendly and helpful to them. The subjects worked in a variety of different fields — like finance, health care, insurance and manufacturing — and ranged in age from 25 to 65. People who were suspected of having physical or mental health problems at the start of the study were excluded.
Over the next 20 years, the researchers were able to follow the participants and monitor their health through their medical records. That gave them the chance to look for risk factors that could influence the results and allowed them to control for things like blood pressure, obesity, drinking habits, smoking, anxiety and depression.
By the time the study ended in 2008, 53 of the workers taking part had died; most of them had cast their work support networks in a negative light. Though correlation doesn’t equal causation and it is difficult to tie the causes of those deaths to specific factors in such a study, the researchers discovered some findings that surprised them.
One thing they noticed was that the risk was only affected by a person’s relationship with his or her peers, and not with that person’s supervisors. The way people viewed their relationships with their bosses had no impact on mortality.
The researchers also found that a person’s perceived level of control at work also influenced risk. But it had differing effects for men and women. Men who reported that they were allowed freedom over their daily tasks and could take more initiative at work had a lower risk of dying during the study period. But women who reported more control had an opposite outcome: Their risk of death over the course of the study rose by 70 percent.
That may have had something to do with changing gender roles in typical work environments when the study began two decades ago, said Sharon Toker, an author of the study and professor in Tel Aviv University’s organizational behavior department. While many office environments were not exactly the testosterone-fueled boys’ clubs typical of “Mad Men,” women did find themselves in more “masculine social environments at work, especially if their co-workers were men,” Dr. Toker said in an e-mail.
“Women having more control of their work pace and schedule usually hold higher positions,” she said. “They were, and still are, expected to wear several hats — the ‘senior worker,’ the ‘mother.’ Thus, having more control in itself may have been a stressor.”
In an age in which many people interact with colleagues only through electronic communication, Dr. Toker said she believed many companies could foster more socially supportive workplaces by encouraging face-to-face exchanges. Among the ways of doing that, she said, are holding regular social outings for employees, designating “coffee corners” where people can chat over breaks and creating peer-assistance programs that allow workers to discuss issues or problems in confidence.
By Anahad O’Connor
August 5, 2011