June 1, 2011

Coworker Support Lengthens Lives

Getting along well with the coworkers may lengthen your life. Getting along with the boss…not so much.

If the stress of your job is taking a toll on your health, it may help to reach out to your coworkers, according to a new study. People who had stronger social support systems at the office tended to live longer than those who didn’t. Getting support from the boss, however, was a different story.

The mortality risk – from any cause – was significantly lower for those who said they had better social support systems with coworkers.

The researchers followed a group of workers in Israel for 20 years. Many of the study’s participants worked at large companies in healthcare, insurance, finance, and manufacturing. They rated various factors in their work environments, including how supported they felt by their coworkers and bosses, and how much control/decision authority they had in their jobs. The researchers tracked the mortality rate in the participants, and logged their health problems, both fatal and nonfatal.

At the end of the 20 year follow-up period, the team found some interesting relationships. The mortality risk – from any cause – was significantly lower for those who said they had better social support systems with coworkers. But those who felt more support from their bosses had no similar lifespan benefits.

And there was another interesting relationship: men who reported having more control and decision-making power at work also had longer life spans than other men. But for women it was the opposite: the more control and decision-making power women had, the more their mortality rate increased. The authors write that there is some previous evidence that lack of control is a risk factor for stress related health issues in men, which could contribute to mortality risk, as seen here.

The results held strong even after the team controlled for many other factors, like body mass index, cholesterol, blood pressure, smoking, past hospitalizations, and depression.

Still, the study does not show cause and effect, just a correlation. There is another limitation to the study: changes in the participants’ support networks, control/decision-making, and workload were not tracked over the years, and these variables could have changed quite considerably in the 20-year period. Therefore, future studies will need to take into account how people’s work environments change in various ways with the passage of time, and how these changes contribute to health and life span.

The study was carried out by researchers at Tel Aviv University, and published in the May 2011 issue of Health Psychology.

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