Just a short note at the end of the week to remind everyone that in life — as well as in the workplace — what goes around, comes around. Meditate on this over the weekend.

The message: Employers who treat their workers well, fairly, with respect, and with recognition of the demands on workers’ lives outside of work are repaid in terms of employee morale, stability, and presenteeism.   And this insight isn’t just wishful thinking or karma; it’s data and evidence.

A new study in the JAMA Network Open investigated the effect of two job characteristics on employee mental health, work absenteeism, and use of mental health care services. The authors examined job security (perceived likelihood of losing one’s job) and job flexibility (perceived ease of changing one’s work schedule to do things important to oneself or family; regularity of work schedule changes; and advance notice of work hours). No surprise, they found that both are key factors to employees’ mental health.

  • NOTE: 57.8 million people (22.8% of U.S. adults) experienced mental illness in 2021. 

Workers with greater job flexibility were 13 percent less likely to experience daily anxiety; those with greater job security were 27 percent less likely to experience daily anxiety. Greater job flexibility was associated with a higher number of missed workdays over a 3-month period, but greater job security was associated with fewer missed days over the past 3 and 12 months.  The authors speculate that these mixed results on absenteeism may reflect the interplay of several factors including individual priorities and needs, workplace culture, and job benefits (e.g., paid sick leave).

  • NOTE:  The U.S. is currently the only high-income country that does not guarantee that workers receive paid sick days or paid sick leave!

Employment: A Social Determinant of Health

Employment and the conditions of work are well-recognized determinants of health and well-being (see here and here). At its best, employment provides a living wage, some financial stability, health insurance, paid vacation, family leave, social connection, a sense of purpose, and opportunities for growth and skill development.

At its worst, employment offers none or little of the above, sometimes along with a work environment that exposes employees to physical, chemical, biological, ergonomic, and/or psychosocial hazards. One recent study found that “work-related psychosocial hazards are on the verge of surpassing many other occupational hazards in their contribution to ill-health, injury, disability, direct and indirect costs, and impact on business and national productivity.”

The average U.S. person will spend about 90,00 hours at work over their lifetime—a third of their lives (here, here). Ample research confirms what people already know from their own lived experience: employment, unemployment, under-employment, and workplace factors can affect their own physical, mental, and emotional health (see for example here, here, here, here.  And then roll downhill from there to impact on families.

There’s no mystery around risks that psychosocial work factors can have workers’ mental health and well-being. Risks include excessive job demands, low control over work, harmful supervisory and managerial practices, ineffective or lack of communication, bullying, and incivility. And that can’t be something employers would welcome. See more here, here, here.

Bottom Line

Employers have the power to enact policies and practices that prioritize workers’ mental health and well-being, which hopefully transfers to the well-being of their business. And some experts are calling on OSHA to consider “extending the regulatory reach of the OSH Act to cover severe psychological harms at work and to anticipate the impact of added enforcement responsibilities on the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

But for employers, rather than a burden or cost of some kind, flexible work arrangements, paid leave, health insurance, access to mental health resources — and attention to the 4 A’s of a mental health-friendly workplace: awareness, accommodations, assistance, and access — will more than repay employers’ costs of doing the right thing – for their worker and for the business.

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