Why Minorities Face More Health Problems From Work Stress

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Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

All jobs involve stress. But not all work-related stress is created equal: There’s a big difference between feeling like you don’t have quite enough time to finish a big report, for example, and worrying that your boss will cut your weekly hours in half, making it hard for you to buy food for your kids. Researchers have known for a long time that more severe stress takes a more damaging physical toll.

A recent study published in the journal Health Affairs highlights this distinction in pretty stark terms. And depressingly, its findings suggest that members of certain minority groups are much more likely to be exposed to severe — even, in the long run, deadly — forms of workplace stress.

According to the study’s press release, the co-authors, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Stefanos Zenios of Stanford and Joel Goh of Harvard decided to delve into the subject of workplace stress after noticing the topic of rising healthcare costs appear frequently on the news. They were curious whether, and to what extent, these healthcare costs could be traced back to the damage done by workplace stress. To do so, they reviewed 228 studies that looked at how ten workplace stressors — including safety, job security, and employees’ sense of control over their jobs — affected health, then further broke down the results by race to see if there were any important distinctions as to who was shouldering the heaviest burden of work stress.

Their results showed that work stress took a much greater toll on members of minority groups than than on Caucasians, and that these differences were largely driven by education levels. “We discovered that a significant fraction of the inequality in health outcomes can be attributed to the fact that the people with less education get sorted into jobs in which they are more likely to face harmful work exposures,” Pfeffer said in the press release. The trio of researchers concluded that the average black man in their study with less than a high school degree lost, on average, an estimated 1.7 years of longevity from workplace stressors. Non-Hispanic white women with more than a college degree, on the other hand, were the least impacted group — they lost just 0.3 years of life from workplace stress.

This depressing story line makes sense: Workers with lower levels of education — who are more likely to be members of certain minority groups — often qualify only for bottom-rung jobs that entail higher levels of workplace stressors, including shift work, odd (and often long) hours, and the constant fear of getting laid off. Again, there’s work stress everywhere, of course, but someone working at a fast-food chain is more likely than someone working in finance to deal with the threat of tenuous employment that could end at any time — and to know that they lack the safety net and professional network to them get back on their feet if they do get fired or laid off.

There’s an obvious social-justice component to this, but Pfeffer and Zenios also think companies have a self-serving incentive to make sure the workplace they’re offering is as low on the stress scale as possible too: The less workplace stress there is — whether it be by offering a dedicated place for working parents to keep their children or, in the case of low-wage work at places like Starbucks, offering reasonable scheduling policies — the lower the health-care costs and productivity losses.

Everyone wins, in other words, when companies understand the very real threat that work stress poses to employee health.