THURSDAY, Aug. 11, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Good relationships with your co-workers and a convivial, supportive work environment may add years to your life, new Israeli research finds.
Published recently in Health Psychology, the study tracked 820 adults with an average age of 41 who worked 8.8 hour days for about 20 years; a third of them were women. Employees who reported low social support at work were 2.4 times more likely to die during those two decades, compared with their colleagues who said they had a good social support system in the workplace.
During the study period, 53 people died, most of whom had negligible social connections with their co-workers. Lack of emotional support at work, in fact, was associated with an 140 percent increased risk of dying in the next 20 years, the researchers found.
"We spend most of our waking hours at work, and we don't have much time to meet our friends during the weekdays," co-author Dr. Sharon Toker of the department of organizational behavior at Tel Aviv University in Israel, explained in a statement. "Work should be a place where people can get necessary emotional support."
Dr. Toker and her colleagues surveyed the study volunteers about their relationships with their supervisors and peers.
They found that peer or informal social support at work was a more potent predictor of health and longevity than relationships with a supervisor or boss. This effect was significant among employees aged 38 to 45, but not in those younger or older.
The findings held up even after the researchers controlled for factors such as age, sex, obesity, smoking, alcohol use, blood sugar, cholesterol, depression and anxiety.
Study participants were also asked if they took initiative at work and if they had the freedom to make their own decisions. Men did better when they were given more control at work, while women with the same amount of control actually had shorter lifespans.
Specifically, women who reported significant control over their tasks and workflow were 70 percent more likely to die during the 20-year period, the study showed. Exactly what is behind this finding is not known, but the study authors suggest that women in positions of power may be overwhelmed by the need to be tough at work and still carry out stressful duties at home.
The study authors also noted that the modern workplace often lacks a supportive environment. Many people telecommute; others communicate via e-mail even if they are in the same office. Coffee corners where people can sit and talk, informal social outings for staff members and/or a virtual social network may encourage employees to feel more connected, the researchers suggested.
"Being happy at work can be a huge productivity booster, and happy people work better with others, are more creative, have more energy, get sick less often, learn faster and worry less about mistakes," said Dr. Alan Manevitz, a psychiatrist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City who was not involved in the study. "The old-fashioned coffee break, talking to people face to face or having an employee picnic on the weekend are very good morale boosters," he said.
However, the study can't answer whether the happy, healthy employee is the chicken or the egg, Manevitz said. Are these employees happy because they work in a supportive environment, he asked, or does their positive energy spill over into how they perceive their work place?
New companies like Google and Zappos are famous for their work hard, play hard credos, and this really speaks to balance, he said. "You don't want to play hard without working or work hard without playing," he said. These companies break down the traditional workplace hierarchies and create bull-pens where people can approach one another freely, but this only works in companies where people are not worried about losing their jobs, he said. Due to the economy, "job security has gone out the window."
Dr. Elyse Schimel, a psychologist in private practice in New York City, said that in the current economy, you have to really weigh your options. "Feeling supported and having a good work environment isn't as important as keeping a roof over your family's head and food on the table," she said. "There are buffers that can help you cope with stress including exercise, sleeping well, eating well, family support and social support," she said. "If you are in a hostile work environment, but don't have feasible options to leave, you want to get balance elsewhere in your life."
Find out more about maintaining a work-life balance at the Mayo Clinic.