Having supportive co-workers may help you live longer than counterparts without, while support from the boss appears to make no difference, said researchers from Israel in a study published in the May issue of the journal Health Psychology.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University found that the link between living longer and the effect of having a supportive peer network was strongest among those aged between 38 and 43.

But when they looked at another aspect of workplace stress, they were surprised to find that having more control over one’s work appears to increase the chance of living longer for men, but to decrease it for women.

For their prospective study, research leader Dr Arie Shirom, a professor in the Faculty of Management, and colleagues examined records of health exams carried out in 1988 in 820 workers referred for routing screening through their workplace health maintenance organization (HMO).

HMO is a form of managed care provided through employers, who in this study included some of Israel’s largest health care, utility, finance, insurance and manufacturing companies.

The health screenings included measures of socioeconomic, behavioral, and biological risk factors, plus a measure used to assess workplace factors, called the Job-Demand-Control-Support (JDC-S) questionnaire which includes items on workload, control, decision authority, peer and supervisor social support.

In the JDC-S model, peer social support is rated high if you report that your co-workers are friendly and helpful in solving problems. Control and decision authority is rated high if you report being able to use your initiative, having opportunities to make best use of your skills, and being free decide how to go about and accomplish your work tasks.

One third of the participants were female, 80% were married with children, and 45% had at least 12 years of formal education. The sample did not include people who were referred for health screening because of suspected physical or mental health problems.

The computerized HMO records also enabled the researchers to track deaths among the 820 workers for the next 20 years, until 2008.

Using a statistical tool called Cox regression models, after adjusting for known physiological and behavioral factors captured in the records, the researchers then looked for links between the JDC-S workplace components and risk of death.

Examples of potential risk factors they were able to adjust for included levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides and glucose, body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, alcohol consumption, smoking, symptoms of depression and anxiety, and hospitalizations.

The results showed that:

  • 53 of the participants died during the follow-up period.
  • The risk of death (from all causes) was significantly lower for those workers reporting high levels of peer social support.
  • The strongest effect was among those who were between 38 and 43 years old in 1988, the baseline of the study.
  • Higher levels of control appeared to reduce the risk of death for men but increase it for women.

Surprisingly, whether people had a supportive or unsupportive boss appeared to make no difference to their risk of death.

The researchers wrote that “peer social support, which could represent how well a participant is socially integrated in his or her employment context, is a potent predictor of the risk of all causes of mortality”.

An additional, and unexpected finding, was “that the effect of control on mortality risk was positive for the men but negative for the women,” they added.

Speculating on why workplace control might have a protective effect for men but not for women, Shirom said perhaps it was because most of their participants were blue collar workers, where high levels of control tend to be found mostly in jobs held by men but not in jobs held by women.

“Providing partial support to our finding, a past study found that for women in blue-collar jobs, having low levels of control does not increase their risk of becoming ill with stress-related disorders,” he added.

One criticism that could be aimed at the study is that the researchers did not look at how changes in workload, control or support changed over the follow-up (because this was not available to them).

However, in their defence, Shirom argued that this was probably a minor limitation because studies have consistently shown that workload, control and support characteristics of jobs tend to be stable over time.

“Work-based predictors of mortality: A 20-year follow-up of healthy employees.”
Shirom, Arie; Toker, Sharon; Alkaly, Yasmin; Jacobson, Orit; Balicer, Ran
Health Psychology, Vol 30 (3), May 2011, 268-275.
DOI: 10.1037/a0023138

Additional source: American Psychological Association.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD