Research on Stress and Health Effects, Social Status and Work

In a separate article on stress and health effects, we discussed how the classic, old-style image of the completely stressed-out, overweight, cigar-smoking, generally unhealthy corporate executive no longer reflects reality.

Now, we realize that CEOs and other corporate executives, being more in control of their own work schedules and able to independently organize their own work, have better chances of leading longer, healthier lives than workers in lower employment grades. 

For example, most blue collar workers are told what to do and when to do it, and they are unable to exercise much control over their work themselves. 

Unlike blue collar workers, corporate executives are most of the time able to schedule time for exercise and working out and take breaks when they need them, an empowerment which helps alleviate their stress.

More on Stress and Health Effects

This article follows up on our former stress and health effects article, in which we also introduced you to Sir Michael Gideon Marmot, professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London. 

Sir Michael is also the author of The Status Syndrome:  How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity as well as the past chairman of the World Health Organization's Commission on Social Determinants of Health. 

His original 10-year Whitehall Study (Whitehall I, from 1967 to 1976) investigated several of the social determinants of health, focusing primarily on the incidence of cardio-respiratory disease and mortality rates in male British civil servants of working age. 

A second study, called Whitehall II, added female as well as male British civil servants to the pool of subjects studied.  The Whitehall study subjects are still being followed.

In short, Whitehall I discovered that the mortality rate among male British servants varied with their employment grades (and therefore their social class and status). 

Workers with lower-level, less responsible jobs experienced a higher mortality rate than workers higher up the chain of command, with more responsibilities.  In other words, the higher a man was in the employment hierarchy, the longer his life span was likely to be. 

The association between work status and longevity was shown to be quite strong, and men on the lowest rung of the employment ladder (messengers and such) actually had a mortality rate that was three times higher than that of the men occupying the top employment positions. 

Although Whitehall I showed that the overall higher mortality rate of lower-ranked (and lower socio-economic status) male workers was due to a variety of causes, the study's results specifically pointed to an increased incidence of heart disease in lower level workers.  

Workers with lower-level employment and status were shown to have a higher incidence of obesity, high blood pressure and smoking, as well as less physical activity and time for relaxation. 

The implication is that these risk factors, which we know can significantly impact a person's health, led to the lower-status workers' tendency toward having shorter life spans.

Female Stress and Health Effects

Whitehall II found that the health and longevity of female British civil servants is affected in ways that resemble the effects that stress and social status has on the health and longevity of men, as demonstrated in Whitehall I. 

Ongoing research is continuing to investigate the ways in which a person's health can be affected by his or her stress levels and socioeconomic status, including what causes certain health conditions to be associated with lower social classes. 

Today, we realize that the ability - the freedom - to set our own schedule and control how we perform our work (within reason, of course) plays an important role in stress reduction and has a positive impact on life expectancy. 

We have learned that individuals who must deal with the pressures of work but cannot control their own schedules or how their work is performed have twice the risk of sustaining a heart attack as executives and supervisors who do have that level of control. 

Conclusions on Stress and Health Effects

Stress, social class, work responsibilities and the degree of control we are able to exert over the way we conduct our work and our life, could all be succinctly described as the social determinants of health. 

We need to offer those who occupy the bottom rungs of the work and social ladder a way to exercise some degree of control over their work, and accordingly, their stress. 

Readers who are interested in this topic may also want to take a look at the third article in our three-part series on stress and health effects. 

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