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Job Promotion Undermines Mental Health

Mental Health

Mental Health Getting a promotion leads to an average 10 percent decline in mental-health functioning as measured by standardized GHQ (Generalized Health Questionnaire) psychological tests.

Mental Health

Henry David Thoreau once said, “The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life that is required to be exchanged for it, either immediately or in the long run.” A newly published study out of the University of Warwick reveals just how much life you exchange in return for getting ahead at work. According to the research, which followed 1000 individuals who received promotions, getting that promotion led to an average 10 percent decline in mental-health functioning as measured by standardized GHQ (Generalized Health Questionnaire) psychological tests.

“Getting a promotion at work is not as great as many people think. Our research finds that the mental health of managers typically deteriorates after a job promotion, and in a way that goes beyond merely a short-term change,” said study director Chris Boyce.

The researchers had set about to discover just why those with higher status at work tend to have better health and live longer than their underlings — an effect that other studies have found. The operating assumption has been that higher status at work leads to greater self-esteem and more sense of control, which in turn leads to better health. This assumption certainly seems to bear out in studies of Nobel Prize winners, who typically live a year longer than those merely nominated for the prize. (I guess Vince Lombardi was right — winning really is the only thing.)

But the Warwick study found no correlation between physical health and promotion — neither any improvement in physical health, nor any deterioration. What it did find was that after climbing the ranks, workers went to the doctor up to 20 percent less. Since health was a non factor, the researchers assumed the drop in visits to the doctor had to do with the intensified work schedule that comes with promotion and that allows little time for self-care.

So reviewing the facts:

  • people show a decline in mental health after getting the promotion they desire
  • they feel more stress
  • they go to the doctor less
  • and while their physical health doesn’t improve, it also doesn’t deteriorate.

The net result is that researchers expressed concern that by foregoing doctor’s visits, managers put themselves at risk. Study director Chris Boyd comments, “There are no indications of any health improvements for promoted people other than reduced attendance at [doctor’s offices], which may itself be something to worry about rather than celebrate.” (But what is that statement based on considering no decline in health was observed?)

So going to the doctor less often didn’t seem to have a negative impact on the physical health of these stressed-out subjects. And since we know that stress usually increases the odds of developing health problems and that isn’t happening here, something else may be going on. Could it be that going to your doctor is actually a risk factor — and that by visiting the doctor less you avoid that risk — thus, nullifying the stress factor? And in fact, there are numerous studies that indicate that despite all the good things that doctors do, when all is said and done, those same doctors increase mortality rates. Study after study has shown that when doctors go on strike, mortality rates drop. But that’s a whole different discussion.

The issue at hand today is that even if promotion to a higher rank leaves the body unscathed, the deterioration in mental health that accompanies promotion certainly creates cause for concern. Another study just released found a sharp decline in cognitive functioning among 2,214 middle-aged British workers who put in more than 55 hours per week. Working long hours (often going hand-in-hand with promotion) was associated with compromised mental skills, impaired short-term memory, as well as with increased depression and increased alcohol consumption. So even if you don’t die sooner, increased stress at work still carries significant costs.

The obvious way to avoid such stress and strain would be to avoid working long hours and to avoid getting promoted, but the current workforce realities make that choice difficult. The Families and Work Institute found that dual-earning couples with children in the US worked a combined average of 91 hours a week in 2002, up from 81 hours in 1977, and it seems the trend continues its upward spiral. A study by the National Sleep Foundation found that 38 percent of the subjects interviewed worked more than 50 hours in a typical week. While European workers clock far less hours than their American counterparts, evidence shows that even abroad workers are starting to put in longer days than before. A survey last year of British workers found that one in four takes no break at all during the day, and one in six Londoners works more than 48 hours weekly.

“Our biggest worry is the long-hours culture that has developed. Everyone is expected to work these long hours and there is pressure on people to put in this extra time,” said Scottish Secretary of Unison Matt Smith, in response to the University of Warwick study. These remarks would seem particularly applicable to those in management roles.

So if you find yourself subject to the demands of a high-level, high-stress job, at the very least you might want to upgrade your diet and incorporate more high-quality supplements to counter the negatives — especially considering that you’re probably going to be seeing your doctor less.


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