How many times have you heard the saying, sitting is the new smoking? The Mayo Clinic cites 13 studies that show chronic sitters have a risk of dying “similar to the risks of dying posed by obesity and smoking.”
Now, there is a growing conversation about the impact of workplace stress on our mental health. But can stressful workplaces cause mental illness just like smoking causes lung cancer? Are stressful workplaces the new smoking?
Suicides at France Telecom
When France Telecom began restructuring in 2007, the company needed to lay-off 22,000 workers. CEO Didier Lombard is quoted as telling his managers, “I’ll get them out one way or another, through the window or through the door.”
In the wake of the restructuring at France Telecom, the BBC reported that, from 2008 to 2009, 19 employees ended their lives by suicide and 12 others attempted suicide. Les Echos reported 60 suicides from 2006 to 2009.
In 2018, Lombard and members of his leadership team were charged with moral harassment. Prosecutors believe workplace stress associated with the restructuring caused the employee suicides. Penalties for moral harassment include fines and up to two years in prison. The trial is expected to begin in the second half of 2019.
Does research support the charges?
The France Telecom suicides contributed to an increase in research on work-related mental illness. In their editorial to the March 2010 edition of Occupational Medicine, Kivimaki, Hotopf and Henderson discussed the many challenges faced by researchers trying to understand if stressful workplaces cause psychiatric disorders.
Problems with surveys
The gold standard of medical study methods is randomized, double-blind experiments. But this method would expose humans to workplace stress and is, therefore, fraught with ethical issues. So, most research has relied on self-report surveys. These surveys ask people to rate their workplace experience and their mental states. But the problem with self-report surveys is that they can’t disentangle something called reverse causality.
Reverse causality refers to the direction of cause and effect. It’s like the chicken and the egg problem. That problem asks, did the chicken create the egg or did the egg create the chicken? So, with respect to determining the relationship between workplace stress and psychological disorders, do stressful workplaces cause people to have depressed mental states, or do people with depressed mental states tend to describe their workplaces as stressful? This is where research on smoking is helpful.
Better off looking at smoking research
Kivimaki et al. suggested that if we want to understand the effects of workplace stress, research on the relationship between smoking and lung cancer might be helpful. Why? Because the causal link between smoking and lung cancer was mainly demonstrated by accumulated observational evidence, not cause and effect experiments.
Kivimaki et al. said,
“If everyone smoked 20 cigarettes per day, we would think that lung cancer was a genetic disease—most smokers do not get lung cancer. Similarly, most employees exposed to apparently stressful workplaces do not become psychiatrically unwell.”
In the above quote, the authors mean that if we had only relied on cause and effect concluded from scientific experiments, we never would have discovered the link between smoking and lung cancer. But, after we began to see a pattern linking smoking and lung cancer, we were then able to design other studies to establish the relationship.
Workplace stress is the new smoking
We can establish a relationship between workplace stress and mental health through rigorous, scientific observation. To do that, we can use qualitative studies rather than only relying on purely quantitative experiments. And it’s these exact methods that are contributing to the body of research that shows the relationship between stressful workplaces and mental illness. And, yes, stressful workplaces just might be the new smoking!
I’ve written a few blogs about workplace stress. Here’s a 3-part series on stress and gender, and here’s a 2-part series on work stress versus work anxiety. What’s been your experience of workplace stress? What guidance can you provide for anyone wanting to learn more? Let me know. Please leave a comment below or message me on social media. You can connect with me on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Also, please share this article and subscribe to the Work Feels Good blog to read more.