Slate’s Brigid Schulte interviewing Jeffrey Pfeffer, author of Dying for a Paycheck:
In the United States, workers work among the longest, most extreme, and most irregular hours; have no guarantee to paid sick days, paid vacation, or paid family leave; and pay more for health insurance, yet are sicker and more stressed out than workers in other advanced economies.
Offering lunchtime yoga to stressed-out workers ignores the real reason why workers are so stressed out in the first place—management practices like long work hours, unpredictable schedules, toxic bosses, and after-hours emails. It’s not individual workers making bad choices about their health that’s making them so sick. It’s the way corporate America expects workers to work.
In your new book, you maintain that the workplace has become “shockingly inhumane” for everyone—white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, low-wage workers, managers. How so?
My colleagues and I looked at 10 different workplace exposures and their effects on health—things like economic insecurity, work-family conflict, long work hours, absence of job control. We found that they account for about 120,000 excess deaths a year in the United States, which would make the workplace the fifth leading cause of death and costs about $190 billion dollars in excess health costs a year. So many of these workplace practices, like work-family conflict and long work hours, are as harmful to health as secondhand smoke, a known and regulated carcinogen. I chose the title of the book intentionally. We are literally killing people. People are dying for a paycheck. And I think it’s unconscionable.
We found that workplaces are a source of the health crisis, which is being observed all over the world, as health care costs are rising. The irony is, of course, that most of what we’re doing at work that’s making people physically and mentally ill is also not helping companies or economic systems.
…the idea that you’ve got to work all these crazy hours in order to be productive is just not true. It’s completely empirically incorrect. Same with layoffs. They don’t benefit companies. Job control and micromanaging doesn’t benefit companies. So we’ve created a lose-lose situation in which people are suffering and companies aren’t benefiting. It’s just pretty bad.
You cite surveys that show high levels of worker disengagement, presenteeism, distrust of management, and burnout, and one that found 7 percent of workers were actually hospitalized because of workplace stress. How did our work environments get this bad for everyone?
It’s been getting worse gradually over time. Forty, 50, 60 years ago, layoffs used to be a response to economic downturns. Now, when [Brazilian private equity group] 3G Capital engineers the merger between Heinz and Kraft and lays off 20 percent of the workforce, it’s seen as a routine part of economic life. But the evidence suggests that suicide rates more than double for people who were laid off, that heart attacks go up 40 percent, according to one study. And studies show downsizing does not positively affect economic performance.
We’ve also seen a rise in scheduling software and the “just in time” workforce for managers who don’t want to add any extra people on the retail floor or in banks, ostensibly to save labor costs. But that kind of scheduling is quite stressful for workers, because you don’t know what your work hours are and therefore what your income is going to be from one week to the next. You don’t know very far in advance when you’re going to be working, so that makes it hard to plan for your other family obligations.
You know, it’s funny, most of the people who check their email off hours—81 percent of people according to one survey do—these are not emergency-room physicians. There’s actually nothing going on that requires you to be on. But people think they need or are expected to be. People are not taking vacation in the United States. It’s unbelievable that 25 percent of workers don’t get any paid time off. Workers are going to work sick. Forty, 50 years ago, CEOs saw themselves as balancing the interests of employees and customers and shareholders and the community. And now it’s all just about the shareholders.
Workers with education and resources may have more ability to change the way they work or the choice to leave toxic work environments. What about workers who don’t?
They’re in even worse shape. In the last two years, average life expectancy in the United States has gone down and health inequalities are rising. People with less education have less access to health insurance. They are much less likely to have job control and are much more likely to face economic insecurity, which increases stress. It’s one of the reasons why we have these enormous health disparities. And the only thing that’s going to fix it is a policy that says, “We are tired of this, this is unacceptable, and there is a level we should not fall below.”
You end your book with a conversation with a nun about how this is really all about what we value as a society. In other words, what is work for? And how can we keep it from crowding out the rest of life, like time for families, health, even leisure?
My friend, Nuria Chinchilla, a business professor in Barcelona, says, “You live in a country where everybody talks about valuing life. Yet what they only seem to care about is just the beginning and the end of life, not the middle.” That’s exactly correct. At the end of the day, we ought to value human life, value not just environmental but human sustainability. More people need to have a sense of stewardship over the lives of their employees, who’ve placed their well-being in leaders’ hands, and take that responsibility seriously. The worst thing about this is that I don’t think anybody cares.