The fifth leading cause of death in the U.S.? Your job.

In his new book, Dying For a Paycheck, Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer says we have to change the workplace environment—now.

We hear about killers all the time: cancer; opioids; heart attack; stroke; traffic accidents. Yet there’s another murderer that one Stanford professor claims to be the fifth-leading cause of death in America, claiming over 120,000 lives and between 5 and 8 percent of annual health care costs: your job.


Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business, compares his new book, Dying For a Paycheck, to Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic, Silent Spring. Pfeffer aims to influence our understanding of the modern workplace in the same manner that Carson’s book rang the alarm on the imminent danger of chemical consequences.

Pfeffer estimates two million instances of workplace violence occur every year, with many cases going unreported. While the number of workplace murders is dropping slightly, he argues that a different type of violence is being conducted. A lot of emphases is placed on physical health and injury avoidance, yet little regard is paid to our mental and emotional health.

For the most part, the emphasis remains on preventing occupational injuries and exposure to hazardous physical conditions coupled with encouraging health promotion programs, with comparatively limited attention focused on changing the psychosocial dimensions of work that have profound effects on health.

Chronic diseases account for 75 percent of US health care costs. As stress is a driver, especially in regards to cardiovascular and metabolic disorders, we have to investigate what is driving its preponderance. Factor in drug and alcohol abuse, which is often associated with dealing with stressful environments, and the toxic relationship between livelihood and mental and physical health becomes clear.

In his book, Pfeffer cites a number of studies linking happiness and health. Happiness is challenging while in ill health. Unfortunately, chronic diseases, as their very name implies, take years and even decades to manifest into full-blown disorders. They come on like tinnitus: an occasional, then constant, ringing in the background of every waking moment. You soon adjust to its annoyance until, one day, hearing loss ensues—or, in cases cited above, death.

There is no singular reason why this has happened, though the growing income divide is an obvious catalyst. Fewer people are doing more work for less pay as an elite few take more and more of the earnings. Many modern jobs provide no sense of meaning; if you feel easily replaceable your appreciation of the work will be nonexistent. Factor in the struggles of our health care system and, well, as Pfeffer says

Job engagement, according to Gallup, is low. Distrust in management, according to the Edelman trust index, is high. Job satisfaction, according to the Conference Board, is low and has been in continual decline. The gig economy is growing, economic insecurity is growing, and wage growth overall has stagnated. Fewer people are covered by employer-sponsored health insurance than in the past, according to Kaiser Foundation surveys. And a strikingly high percentage of people, even those covered by insurance, say they forgo treatment and medications because of cost issues.

What makes this all the more confusing, he continues, is that workers know they're suffering. One Amazon employee Pfeffer interviews is cognizant of the “chaotic organizational structure, political infighting, and a difficult boss whom she could never satisfy,” which resulted in her stomach aches, headaches, and skin rashes. To cope she started binge eating and binge drinking.

Pfeffer cites economics as the first reason many people persist in the jobs that are killing them. Beyond that, company prestige, challenging work, inertia, and pride are all attributed to keeping workers put. Leaving a position is a blow to self-esteem; some would rather “tough it out” than admit failure, even if in the process their health is sacrificed. This confusing paradox is made all the worse by its persistence across occupations. 

What’s worse, this toxicity has become normalized. The human ego is both resilient and fragile, always ready to be swayed by popular opinion—Pfeffer points out that “norm” and “normative” generally play out similarly. While three general reasons exist for people leaving a job—a final, precipitating event; supportive family and friends; becoming so psychologically and/or physically sick they cannot continue—it often takes too long to muster the courage.

Pfeffer points to companies whose bottom line includes employee health, such as Barry-Wehmiller, Patagonia, Zillow, Collective Health, Google, and DaVita. In the manic demand for maximal productivity, most businesses fail to realize that they’ll lose more money—estimates are at $300 billion— when their employees are suffering from chronic stress. Calling out these “social polluters” arms workers and the public with a powerful tool for shaming executives and boards into making better decisions, a trend Pfeffer hopes will grow.

Good health, he notes, goes beyond the advertising fluff known as wellness programs offered during lunchtime or after work. He is quite clear these do not work: 

Wellness programs are an attempt to remediate the harmful effects of what’s going on in the workplace. Instead of remediation you need to prevent. Instead of causing you to over-smoke and over-drink and over-eat and under-exercise because of what goes on in the workplace, and then giving you a wellness program, they should change the underlying work conditions.

Pfeffer foresees a future in which workplace stress is measured in the same way as pollution and workers sue companies like the tobacco industry was for creating deadly products. Laudable goals, certainly, but in a nation fraught with political tension and a growing gig economy, staring at a future with more automation and less secure employment, we’d better start such initiatives now.

-- 

Derek Beres is the author of Whole Motion and creator of Clarity: Anxiety Reduction for Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.