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Boring Jobs Can Lead to Shorter Lives - 2002-06-23

The next time you're at work and someone says he or she is bored to death, don't laugh. A new study of Americans' work life reveals that boring jobs can actually hasten death. The study shows that jobs in which employees have little if any control over their activities are even more deadly.

For 34 years, the University of Michigan has kept track of Americans in 25,000 households in order to study how such things as family income and savings change over the years.

But Benjamin Amick used the massive family data from the Michigan study for another reason. He is an epidemiologist, a sort of disease detective, at the University of Texas Health Center in Houston. Dr. Amick and colleagues wanted to use the University of Michigan data to see whether people's life expectancy is affected by the kind of work they do. Some of the results are startling.

Dr. Amick's group looked at the American workers at a given point in time, then again five years later. They found that people who spend most of their work lives in passive and repetitive jobs, key-punch operators and assembly-line workers, for instance, are 33 percent more likely to die within those five years than are people who have interesting and not terribly high-stress jobs.

Amick:"You basically have a job where you don't have much control over what you do and how you do it, but you're not doing a lot in terms of psychological demands. That type of job typically doesn't have a lot of meaningful content in it. Repetition is often one of the key signals that you have a job that has little control in it."
Landphair:"In other words, if I have a job in which I have some control over my day, and if I have a job that's interesting, as opposed to boring, I'm going to live longer?"
Amick: "I think that's a safe bet. You'll live longer and be more productive."

Looking specifically at the lack of control over one's work environment, Benjamin Amick's study found that people stuck in jobs in which they have little or no say over how they spend their workdays, such as truck drivers on assigned routes and nurses' aides reporting to four or five different bosses, have a 50 percent higher risk of premature death than do people who have some control over their daily routine.

Elease Jenkins has an interesting job these days. She's a community-affairs officer at the University of Texas in Houston, where Dr. Amick teaches. But she knows the harmful effects of a boring, low-control job as well. She says most of her older relatives lived into their nineties, but her mother died at age 63. She labored for years on factory assembly lines. And Ms. Jenkins herself had, and quickly quit, a similar job.

Jenkins: "My job was literally to sit there and piece together two pieces of hard plastic. And what I would have to do was to dip one of the pieces in a solvent, and then hold it together for one, two, three seconds, and then pass it along an assembly line. I remember it being one of the most excruciatingly boring two-and-one-half days of my life."
Landphair: "What do you think the lesson is for bosses?"
Jenkins: "To try to get some variety into the day of their employees, and to realize that if they want a productive workforce, they have to see people as people and not machines."

Ms. Jenkins' remedy, variety in a job, treating people as people, and giving everyone, even the lowest-level employee, a chance to participate in decision-making seems simple enough.

But Steven Sauter, an industrial psychologist at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, which helped to fund Dr. Amick's study, says making jobs more stimulating can produce demands on workers that lead to other kinds of pressure.

"Accompanying the increased control is significant job intensification. The workers perceive that they're working harder and faster," he said. "The concern would be that along with this increased authority comes responsibility, and along with that responsibility there's a creep in workload and demand."

Benjamin Amick and his Texas colleagues found that race and sex compound the problem of boring or low-control jobs. The data show that blacks in the population that was studied have a two-to-one greater chance of dying in the next five years than do non-blacks, and men a three-to-one greater chance than women.

"Being unemployed for periods of time [also] doubles your chances of dying. So working is better than not working," Dr. Amick said.

Dr. Sauter at the occupational safety and health institute in Cincinnati, Ohio, says the University of Texas study is significant because it tracks workers over entire careers, not just at a single point in their lives. And he says the study results are remarkable because they show that it isn't just people in diverse, high-demand jobs who can suffer terrible consequences from stress. So can people in monotonous and low-control jobs like security screeners at the x-ray machines that are popping up in workplaces around the nation.

"These types of jobs that we often call boring are actually jobs that can be very stressful, because one has to call upon internal resources to try to keep going," Dr. Sauter said. "While they're boring, the worker has to fight to keep alert and fight to keep active and to keep oneself going."

In separate research, Benajmin Amick and his colleagues at the University of Texas are looking more intensively at factors that compound the life-shortening effects of boring, low-control jobs, factors like smoking, depression, and alcohol abuse. That study will take several months.