Relative to their counterparts in most other rich, developed countries, American workers work a lot, don’t get much time off, and deal with a huge amount of work-related stress, uncertainty, and illness. Now, a new poll from NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health (full PDF here), digs into some of the gory details.
The survey, directed by Robert J. Blendon, a health policy and political analysis professor at the Chan School of Public Health, asked a nationally representative sample of 1,601 American workers a variety of questions about their jobs, health, stress levels, and so forth.
As NPR’s Joe Neel reports, “Overall, 43 percent of working adults told us their job negatively affects their stress levels. Others said their job negatively affects their eating habits (28 percent), sleeping habits (27 percent), and weight (22 percent).” That is a lot of stress, under-sleeping, and weight gain.
Unsurprisingly, some fields were far worse than others. Here are the five fields in which the highest percentages of workers “report[ed] that their jobs have a bad impact on overall health”:
Retail outlet – 26%
Construction/outdoor work – 23%
Factory or manufacturing – 21%
Medical – 19%
Store – 16%
(If you’re wondering about the difference between “store” and “retail outlet”: Respondents were asked which category best described their place of work, and then read a list which included “a store” and “other retail outlet” as two separate items, so there’s some fuzziness here. There are probably some Walmart workers, for example, who listed their place of employment as a “retail outlet,” while others may have listed it as a “store.”)
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that being a checkout clerk or a construction worker is a stressful, unhealthy job. But one of the more interesting takeaways from the survey had to do with the ways even people with high-paying, white-collar jobs felt like they couldn’t stop working. As Neel writes, “our survey found that even among those who get paid vacations days, less than half use all or most of the days they earned in the past year. And when they do take vacation, 43 percent of high-pay workers say they often or sometimes work on vacation, with 28 percent of average pay workers and 18 percent of low-pay workers saying the same.” Overall, a full 48 percent of workers in “high-paying jobs,” as defined by the survey, said they didn’t take all or most of their vacation days — that’s a staggering number of hours of effectively free labor for their employers, and given the salutary benefits of time off, it likely takes a health toll.
There’s no easy “answer” to any of this, of course. While part of the survey results touched on the fact that many offices lack any sort of health/wellness initiatives, that’s just a Band-Aid, anyway — people are stressed and overworked for a complicated web of reasons that can feel downright oppressive to workers.
In other words, if you feel like you have to work 50 hours a week just to stay afloat, and can’t afford to miss work even when you’re seriously ill, even the nicest yoga room in the world isn’t going to do much for you.
(Update: I originally made a couple errors in transferring the percentages referenced above from the NPR story to this post, but the errors have been corrected.)