Positive relationships at work can reduce stress and increase longevity

Positive relationships at work can reduce stress and increase longevity

By Catherine Walker

A new research study looks at whether a work environment that promotes positive relationships can influence workplace stress and influence long-term health.

Sharon Toker, Ph.D. and colleagues at Tel Aviv University in Israel followed the health records of 820 adults who worked an average of 8.8 hours per day for over 20 years.  Those who had reported having low social support at work were 2.4 times more likely to die sometime during those 20 years said Toker.

The study participants were aged between 25 and 65 with their inclusion initiated when they went to their local HMO for a routine check-up.

The study is published in the journal Health Psychology.

 “We spend most of our waking hours at work, and we don’t have much time to meet our friends during the weekdays,” said researcher Sharon Toker, Ph.D. “Work should be a place where people can get necessary emotional support.”

The study addressed ‘control issues’ in the workplace.  The participants were asked if they were allowed to use initiative at work and if they had the freedom to make their own decisions on how tasks should be accomplished.

The results show that while men flourished when offered more control over their daily work, women with the same control women did not.

In one sense, said Toker, power at work is a good thing.  Mental Healthy questions whether these findings would have been the same if the women surveyed were from, for example, New York or London.

“But there is a lot of responsibility on your shoulders,” she said. “If you have to make important decisions with no guidance, it can be stressful.”

Women in high power positions, she adds, may be overwhelmed with the need to be tough at work, and still be expected to maintain stressful duties when at home.

Part of the investigation involved the researchers screening for various psychological, behavioural or physiological risk factors such as smoking, obesity and depression.  Participants represented a wide variety of professional fields including finance, manufacturing and health care.

Researchers asked study participants about their relationship with their supervisors, and also assessed the subjects’ evaluation of their peer relationships at work.  The researchers also looked into whether an individual viewed their peers as friendly and approachable.  The strongest indicator of future health was the perception of emotional support.

During the course of the study, 53 participants died, most of whom had negligible social connections with their co-workers.

Toker believes that while building a supportive environment for employees may seem intuitive, she believes many workplaces have lost their way. Ironically, technology may have a mixed role in the distancing of employees.

Despite open-plan offices, many people use email rather than face-to-face communication, and social networking sites that may provide significant social connection are often blocked.

Toker believes workplaces and the work environment can be designed to improve camaraderie, making the office friendlier to your health.

She suggests coffee corners where people can congregate to sit and talk, informal social outings for staff members, an internal virtual social network similar to Facebook, or a peer-assistance program where employees can confidentially discuss stresses and personal problems that may affect their position at work — anything that encourages employees to feel emotionally supported. 

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