A bad work environment can be bad for your health

Colleagues working at desk in office

(CNN) — Don’t hit the snooze button on this one.

Some dread going to work, and some look forward to it, but how important is it to actually enjoy and feel satisfied with your job?

Nearly two-thirds of US workers experience some degree of mismatch between their desired and actual working conditions, according to a recent survey by RAND. To make things worse, a study conducted in the UK found that there were more physical markers of stress in people who went from being unemployed to working in a bad job than in those who remained unemployed.

Together, these studies provide insight into the struggles of the work force and the negative health impacts a poor work environment can have on employees.

How Americans really feel

The RAND report reflects the responses of more than 3,000 Americans ages 25 to 71 on a variety of questions regarding their jobs.

“The thing that surprised me most was how many people experienced some kind of hostile social interaction in the workplace,” said Nicole Maestas, co-author of the study and associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School. The report found that one in five US workers had such experiences, with the interactions including verbal abuse and sexual harassment.

A big factor in this statistic is the level of support that a boss provides in the work environment, Maestas said. A supportive boss can cut the amount of hostile interactions in the workplace in half, she said, and lower it even more than that for young women without a college degree.

“The top of the organization sets the tone about what this culture values and tolerates as far as behavior and codes of conduct, which filters down to all of the supervisory levels,” Maestas said. “So at every point, having a boss that will either not be disrespectful or intervene if you’re being treated disrespectfully by someone else is really, really important.”

The study also found that nearly three-fourths of Americans report intensive or repetitive physical exertion at least a quarter of the time while on the job. And more than half report exposure to potentially dangerous working conditions.

One in four American workers said they don’t feel like they have enough time to do their jobs, and about half reported working during their free time in order to meet expectations. Women report having more difficulty arranging time off to take care of personal and family matters than men, as well as earning less money.

A disparity is also seen in the complexity of jobs. Regardless of their level of education, younger and prime-age working women were significantly less likely to report having a job that requires solving complicated tasks and unforeseen issues in comparison with similarly aged men.

Although 75% of workers received training to improve on or learned a skillset in the past year, only 38% reported that their job “offers good prospects for advancement.”

This study provides important information for employers, Maestas said. Within work environments, there is an attitude that if an employee is happy, he or she will be more productive. In respectful places of work, there is less turnover, so these numbers could help influence employers to aim for a better code of conduct, she said.

Seth Kaplan, an associate professor of psychology at George Mason University who was not involved in the study, said it generally corroborates what is already known about American work experiences. But the percentage of people who reported a hostile environment was higher than he suspected.

“We focus a lot on very dramatic overt behaviors in the workplace, like workplace shootings, for example. Those are relatively rare,” he said. “But it’s usually the kind of harsh or mildly aggressive supervisor that’s the chronic stressor that’s there every day that doesn’t get as much attention. And I think we kind of fail to realize how detrimental those types of stressors can be.”

On the bright side, four out of five workers reported that their jobs were “meaningful” in at least one way, and 84% reported that they learn new things.

Is a bad job better than no job?

“Working in a bad job is not good for you. It’s not good for your physical health, and it’s not good for your mental health. And nearly everybody accepts that,” said Tarani Chandola, lead author of the International Journal of Epidemiology study and professor of medical sociology at the University of Manchester.

“But there is some backward ‘Oh, at least you have a job. Any job has got to be better than not having a job — so being unemployed must be the worst thing for your health there can be.’ It’s an assumption that people make, but not many people actually test this assumption.”

He and co-author Nan Zhang, also of the University of Manchester, decided to test it. They surveyed 1,116 people in the UK aged 35 to 75 years and found that those who transitioned from unemployment to a poor-quality job had higher biological indicators of stress than people who remained unemployed.

These biological indicators are an issue because they show that the individual could develop metabolic- or cardiovascular-related diseases, according to the study.

The individuals who transitioned into good-quality jobs had the lowest amounts of stress indicators seen from measurements across the cardiovascular, metabolic and immune systems, the study said.

Chandola said they did not find any mental health improvement in either the people who stayed unemployed or those who went on to poor-quality jobs, which also counters the assumption that a bad job is better than no job.

George Mason University’s Kaplan said “it would be nice if they were able at some point to collect data on objective health outcomes.” As the study suggests that the biological markers are indicators of eventual illness, a followup report on health outcomes would be advantageous, he said. But overall, he thought the study provided a clever new look at the effects of poor-quality employment.

Workers who don’t have flexibility in their schedules tend to have more biological stress indicators, Chandola said. In his next study, he wants to delve deeper into flexibility’s impact on the work force.

“You can’t just look at whether an unemployment program is successful because someone has got a job. It has to be a good-quality job,” he said. “I think that the flexibility dimension is really key because not many workplaces allow for flexibility and workers being able to schedule their own hours. But it is one of the ways in which people can reduce their stress levels at work.”