Wait … Work Is Good for Your Health?

A compre200400993-001hensive survey of American workers this week offered some predictable findings about health and employment. But there are some happy surprises as well.

Perhaps most interesting was a finding that 28 percent of workers said their job was good for their overall health. That’s considerably more than the 16 percent who said it was bad.  (The rest, a slight majority, said their job had no effect on their overall health.)

Why the upbeat view? Researchers didn’t ask, and declined to share any thoughts about what respondents meant. But we can find some clues on our own by looking at this poll and other research. And those clues offer some encouragement for HR professionals.

How does your job affect your _____?
Good impact Bad impact No impact
Overall health 28% 16% 54%
Eating habits 15% 28% 56%
Stress level 16% 43% 39%
Sleeping habits 17% 27% 55%
Weight 19% 22% 57%
Social life 27% 17% 56%
Family life 32% 17% 50%
Source: Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Make no mistake, there are plenty of concerns raised by this survey, which was performed by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in conjunction with National Public Radio and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Researchers polled 1,601 working Americans across a range of ages, ethnicities, income levels and industries. The margin of error for the full sample was 2.9 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

NPR stories about the survey this week have highlighted how workers with disabilities often struggle at work, how lack of sick leave can drive some families into financial crisis and why so many employees go to work while sick.

Among other troubling — if unsurprising — findings was that 43 percent of respondents said work added stress to their lives. A news release from the university quoted poll director Robert J. Blendon concluding that “The takeaway here is that job number one for U.S. employers is to reduce stress in the workplace.”

But what might workers be thinking when they say their job is good for their health?

One obvious point is that having a job means having an income and (often) having insurance. That’s definitely good for your health. But I wonder if many respondents were really thinking at that level of abstraction.

There’s also research suggesting that, in fact, work is good for your health. One frequently-cited research overview conducted in the United Kingdom concluded that meaningful, safe work generally offers physical and mental-health benefits. Being active and having a purpose is good for us.

But were many respondents thinking about arcane findings in the field of occupational health?

Perhaps a more plausible explanation is in the new poll itself — findings that suggest wellness programs really matter. More than half of respondents said their company had a formal wellness program.

Even more significant: Of those workers, a whopping 45 percent said that program was “very important” to their health. Nearly as many said it was “somewhat important.”

Wellness programs don’t offer any clues about some other surprising findings in this poll, alas. Respondents also apparently think work is good for their social life and (even more mysteriously) their family life. Let’s hope researchers some day will drill deeper to find out what’s really going on here.