Your Co-Workers Might Be Killing You? Yeah, But So Is That Doughnut

Leave it to The Wall Street Journal to come up with one of the most curiously compelling and over-the-top irresponsible headlines I’ve seen in a long time. It says: “Your Co-Workers Might Be Killing You.

Well yes, we’re all dying of something I suppose. But this story is similar to all those surveys that keep coming out that alternate between how drinking coffee is increasing your risk of cancer, only to be followed by another one about how your daily java fix actually protects you against some other disease.

To be fair to the Journal, Wired and Time magazine also ran this doozy of a story — with equally irresponsible headlines — and the premise behind it seems reasonable enough on the surface, according to the Time story:

 My job is killing me.” Who among us hasn’t issued that complaint at least once? Now a new study suggests that your dramatic grousing may hold some scientific truth.

The 20-year study, by researchers at Tel Aviv University, sought to examine the relationship between the workplace and a person’s risk of death. Researchers recruited 820 adults who had undergone a routine physical exam at a health clinic in 1988, and then interviewed them in detail about their workplace conditions — asking how nice their colleagues were, whether their boss was supportive and how much autonomy they had in their position.

The participants ranged in age from 25 to 65 at the start of the study and worked in a variety of fields, including finance, health care, manufacturing and insurance. The researchers tracked the participants through their medical records: by the study’s conclusion in 2008, 53 people had died — and they were significantly more likely than those who survived to report having a hostile work environment.

People who reported having little or no social support from their co-workers were 2.4 times more likely to die during the course of the study than those who said they had close, supportive bonds with their workmates. Interestingly, the risk of death was tied only to people’s perceptions of their co-workers, not their bosses. People who reported negative relationships with their supervisors were no more likely to die than others.”

Bad workers are the result of bad managers

Yes, this survey is about toxic jobs and workplace stress, and there is no doubt that those things can have a serious impact on a person’s health.

But when you read the many comments attached to this story on Time‘s website (more than 70 as I write this), from people who say they have experienced first hand the effect of workplace stress, they keep coming back to the same reason for it: terribly poor and incompetent management.

Here’s just one of the many comments, and they all seem to make the same essential point:

I worked for five years at a place  where colleagues treated each other fairly well. The director who is a narcissist, had her pets, pitted workers against one another and had no management experience. I watched things deteriorate -good employees who were mentally healthy individuals quit within the first year. Others developed health issues like high blood pressure and heart related problems and they too had to leave. Sadly, the dysfunctional ones are still there and getting sicker. Side note – the director is still there and gets excellent reviews from corporate supervisors.”

Some of the comments talk about backbiting and other offenses perpetrated by co-workers, but to me, that just makes the point even more clearly.

Where are the managers in all these workplaces where all these people toil in all these bad jobs? Is it the co-workers that are the big health and stress-causing problem, or the lack of competent managers working to keep those toxic employees under control?

The flip side of engagement

Here’s a news flash: Co-workers don’t act badly toward others in the workplace unless their managers allow it to happen. I’ve worked in a lot of workplaces and managed a lot of people, and it’s in the ones I toiled with dysfunctional managers where workers were stressed out.

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It’s in the absence of good management practices, and supervision, that bad workplace behavior can flourish. I can’t recall it ever happening in companies where the managers were on top of their game.

It’s also the flip side of the engagement issue. If we’ve learned anything from all the focus on employee engagement the last few years, it’s this: the No. 1 driver of strong employee engagement is the employee’s relationship with their supervisor. Wouldn’t it make sense, therefore, that a lack of a relationship with a supervisor would result in a badly behaved workplace?

This study seems somewhat squishy when it comes to conclusions. Where the authors see bad co-workers as the root problem, I see bad managers as the real reason that a workplace can be hard on a person’s health. Without bad managers who are derelict in their duty, there are a lot fewer bad co-workers — and probably no study that Time and The Wall Street Journal wants to write about.

Yes, workplaces can be tough on your health, but unless you have management that’s passive and out-to-lunch, it’s more probable it’s the doughnuts they bring in for everyone on Friday that’s likely to do it.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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4 Comments on “Your Co-Workers Might Be Killing You? Yeah, But So Is That Doughnut

  1. Thanks John, for the article.  I couldn’t agree more that bad managers have a very direct impact on employee engagement.  But to me, the responsibility for that impact lies squarely with the senior leadership team that allows the nasty manager to move up the ranks.  Is it because it’s easier to promote these people than provide direct corrective feedback (weakness), or is it because the bad manager manages to present two faces and senior leadership is too busy or blind to see the damage (ignorance)?  Either way, I believe the accountability lies at the top for allowing these destructive practices to continue.  Many employee engagement research reports also point to low trust in senior leadership as pretty much on par with the direct manager relationship.  If I had a manager like the one in the article, I’d be pretty peeved with leadership too.

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