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How You Do a Job Can Make You Sick

Sometimes, less confidence means more colds

TUESDAY, May 1 (HealthScout) -- Having control over your job may not always be a good thing for your health.

By conventional wisdom, more control equals less stress, which in turn leads to better health, or less sickness.

But it's not always quite that simple, it seems.

In the workplace, a combination of factors -- like whether you have confidence in your skills and whether you shoulder the blame for problems at work -- actually affect your chances of catching a cold, contends a new study from researchers into organizational behavior.

It all comes back to stress, they say.

"Stress has been linked to suppressed immune system function and to getting colds," says lead researcher John Schaubroeck, head of the management department at Drexel University in Philadelphia. That's been shown in various laboratory-based studies, he says.

But apparently it's not just those with little say in their jobs who can fall prey to the effects of stress.

In fact, people with low control over their jobs may be least likely to suffer from upper respiratory tract infections, Schaubroeck says.

The most likely stress victims, the study says, are employees who have considerable control, but who little confidence in their abilities -- described by Schaubroeck as having "low self-efficacy, or little sense of mastery of what you're doing" -- or who blame themselves when things go wrong on the job.

"If you're very self-confident about what you're doing, you're better off in a high-control job," Schaubroeck says. "But if you lack confidence in your abilities on the job, you're better off in a low-control job."

"Other configurations of job complexity and responsibility for others … can make people more susceptible to colds," he says.

For instance, "if you're prone to self-blame, you suffer more with high job demands and high control," he says.

The research team questioned 217 people who worked at all levels for a survey research firm located in the Midwest. Besides asking the participants about their job situations, including the stress they perceived and their health status, the researchers checked their saliva for immunoglobulin-A antibodies. The antibodies attack bacteria associated with upper respiratory infections, giving an indication as to who is sick -- or about to become so.

People without confidence in their skills had lower levels of antibodies, putting them at higher risk of infection, the study says. Details appear in the April issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

Sheldon Cohen, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says that "enduring, ongoing problems," whether family or job related, create stress.

"We've done multiple studies that show that people who are under more stress are more susceptible to upper respiratory infections," Cohen says.

"We have not attempted to measure job stress per se," says Cohen, who would not comment directly on the latest study because he had not read it.

But his own work has shown that it's "the duration of the stressors" that matters, he says.

Schaubroeck says that many in the business world have adopted the idea of giving employees more control, whether they call it "organizational democracy, employee empowerment, job enrichment [or] re-engineering."

"That's well and good for productivity," he says, but businesses also should be aware that such changes "can have positive health consequences for some, and negative for others."

What To Do

For more on the link between stress and the common cold, take a look at an article from the NIH Record. For more on colds in general, including potential causes, check out information from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

To learn more about stress on the job, visit the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Or, you might want to read previous HealthScout articles on colds, on stress and on a variety of workplace issues.

SOURCES: Interviews with John Schaubroeck, Ph.D., professor and head, department of management, LeBow College of Business, Drexel University, Philadelphia; and Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., professor, department of psychology, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, and adjunct professor of pathology and psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh; April 2001 Journal of Applied Psychology
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