You know working too much is bad for you. (You do know that, right?) Now researchers say your relationship to your work—and your boss—may be just as important. Their study, forthcoming in the journal Personnel Psychology, found a link between autonomy at work, healthy habits, and living longer. 

Lead author Erik Gonzalez-Mulé researches organizational behavior at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. He and his co-author, Bethany Cockburn of the University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business, wanted to see if they could quantify the negative long-term health effects of feeling powerless in the workplace.

The two drew on data from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which studied 10,000 people who had graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. Researchers interviewed the participants every few years about their lives, their work, their feelings, their habits, and their health. 

For the current project, Gonzalez-Mulé and Cockburn pulled information from 2004 to 2011 on people who were still working but were nearing the end of their careers. They were especially interested in how job pressure, the amount of time spent working, and autonomous decisions at work related to health and mortality. 

They found a fascinating relationship between workplace demands, autonomy—that is, being able to make decisions about how to spend time and how work was done—and lifespan. People in demanding jobs who had little control over their work had a 15.4 percent higher risk of death within the study period than people in low-demand jobs. This isn’t terribly surprising, Gonzalez-Mulé said in a statement: “When you don't have the necessary resources to deal with a demanding job … You might eat more, you might smoke, you might engage in some of these [unhealthy] things to cope with it." 

But the situation was reversed for people with lots of workplace autonomy. For them, demanding work was actually associated with a 34 percent decrease in the risk of death. 

This authors conclude that even demanding work can be a good and even healthy thing when employees feel empowered. “You can avoid the negative health consequences [of high-stress jobs] if you allow them to set their own goals, set their own schedules, prioritize their decision-making and the like," Gonzalez-Mulé said in a statement. 

Of course, there are other reasons that high-stress, no-agency jobs could be associated with a risk of death. Many of the most hazardous professions, including construction work, leave little room for independent thinking in employees, and death rates among office workers were lower.

Still, the authors say, dedicated employers in any field can find ways to make their staff feel more connected to their work. Studies on job-crafting, in which employees take an active role in designing their day-to-day experience, suggest that a sense of agency increases both employees’ happiness and their productivity.

Also helpful: seeing clear, real-world results. "There's a lot research that shows that people who have a social connection with the beneficiaries of their work are much more satisfied and have less stress in their jobs, with no change in the job itself,” Gonzalez-Mulé said.

The researchers recommend that, wherever possible, employers give their staff “a voice in the goal-setting process, so when you're telling someone what they're going to do ... it's more of a two-way conversation."

The study is hardly universal, including only older adults from Wisconsin, and further studies will be needed to validate these findings. In the meantime, employers—ease up a little, won’t you? 

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