Last month, news broke that Wells Fargo had been, as Daily Intelligencer so delicately put it, screwing over its customers by opening accounts in their names without their knowledge or approval. Ever since, stories have been surfacing that provide insight into the kind of work environment that helped push employees toward that level of fraud.
Consider one extreme example reported by the New York Times this week: the story of Angie Payden, a banker in Hudson, Wisconsin, who was so stressed that she started guzzling hand sanitizer — “at least a bottle a day,” she said — to cope. (For context, a bottle of hand sanitizer contains as much alcohol as five shots, according to Newsweek.)
She tells the Times:
One morning, before meeting with a customer, in which I knew I was going to have to sell unneeded services, I had a severe panic attack. I went to the bathroom and took a drink of some hand sanitizer.
This immediately reduced my anxiety. From that point, I began drinking the hand sanitizer all over the bank.
In late November 2012, I was completely addicted to hand sanitizer and drinking at least a bottle a day during my workday.
Other employees report anxiety-induced physical symptoms, including a woman in Houston who claims she was so stressed out that she developed shingles. (Researchers are skeptical of the notion that psychological stress can directly cause shingles, but stress has been shown to weaken the immune system, which could allow the viral infection to flourish.) Likewise, a banker in New Jersey started losing sleep and would “get nauseous every Sunday night over the start of the next workweek.” One sales representative in Illinois even said his anxiety sent him to the ER. “It got so bad that one day I left work to go to the emergency room because I thought I was having a heart attack. It turns out it was an anxiety attack,” the man, identified as Scott. T., told the Times. “I thought I was going to have a heart attack or a stroke if I stayed any longer.”
These stories are frightening examples of something researchers have been preaching for many years — that working in a toxic environment is “horrible” for your mental and physical health. In Sweden, for example, one 2004 study found that work anxiety “doubled the risk of developing a sleep problem.” Other studies have linked stressful work environments to an increased risk of developing heart disease or depression. In 2011, researchers in Israel published the conclusions of a study for which they followed more than 800 employees in a range of industries for 20 years; they found that those who died during that time period were more likely to have reported working in a stressful environment.
But those researchers also identified two factors that appeared to protect against physical- and mental-health deterioration, even in a stressful workplace:
Your relationship with your peers. Those who felt isolated from their colleagues were 2.4 times more likely to have died during this study period as compared to those who said they had strong, supportive relationships with their co-workers. Your relationship with your boss, on the other hand, is perhaps not ultimately as important as it sometimes seems to be: This study found no significant association between a person’s mortality risk and his or her relationship with the boss. Having pals at work matters.
Your sense of control over your own work. Feeling like you have some freedom in your job matters, too. This study also found a link between a sense of control and a decreased risk of dying, a result that is echoed in other studies in occupational psychology. More evidence to suggest that all anyone really wants at work is autonomy.
Just some things to consider before chugging hand sanitizer starts to seem like a good idea.