By Melissa J. Anderson

Last month’s issue of Wired Magazine featured an article by Jonah Lehrer detailing the effects of certain kinds of workplace stress on the immune system. “Under Pressure” discussed the work of Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a professor of Biology and Neurology at Stanford University, as well as summarized several other studies from around the world – revealing an important link between stress, power, and wellbeing.

Add that to a new report by Gallup showing how wellbeing affects employee engagement (especially in this current economic environment), and the issue of stress becomes even more pertinent for employers. According to Sapolsky (and Lehrer), stress negatively impacts your immune system, making you more at risk of both the sniffles and long term chronic illnesses.

But it’s not just any stress. Sapolsky is specifically talking about the kind of stress that comes from feeling powerless in one’s job or social position. And with layoffs, paycuts, and unemployment we’re all facing right now, many employees are beginning to feel the push.

Stress and Power

According to Sapolsky, stress can cause a “staggeringly diverse” range of ailments:

“…from the common cold and lower-back pain to Alzheimer’s disease, major depressive disorder, and heart attack. Stress hollows out our bones and atrophies our muscles. It triggers adult-onset diabetes and is a leading cause of male impotence. In fact, numerous studies of human longevity in developed countries have found that psychosocial factors such as stress are the single most important variable in determining the length of a life. It’s not that genes and risk factors like smoking don’t matter. It’s that our levels of stress matter more.”

Frightened yet? And, Sapolsky says, stress makes medical care less effective as well. Lehrer writes, “Antibiotics, for instance, are far less effective when our immune system is suppressed by stress; that fancy heart surgery will work only if the patient can learn to shed stress.” But it’s a specific kind of stress that causes us to get (and stay) so sick.

According to Sapolsky, and a number of other studies cited within the article, the stress of feeling powerless or downtrodden with one’s situation is the most dangerous to one’s health. For example, Lehrer cites a 25 year longitudinal study by Michael Marmot, a professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London of civil servants in the strictly hierarchical British bureaucracy. He writes:

“After tracking thousands of civil servants for decades, Marmot was able to demonstrate that between the ages of 40 and 64, workers at the bottom of the hierarchy had a mortality rate four times higher than that of people at the top. Even after accounting for genetic risks and behaviors like smoking and binge drinking, civil servants at the bottom of the pecking order still had nearly double the mortality rate of those at the top.”

While individuals at the top of the ladder may feel a lot of stress in their jobs, they also have a lot of power over what they do. Individuals on the lower rungs may be equally stressed – but they don’t have much power at all. In fact, “getting promoted from the lowest level in the British civil service reduced the probability of heart disease by up to 13 percentage points. Climbing the social ladder makes us live longer.”

Lehrer says this corresponds with the rate of heart disease in female office workers. When women first entered the workforce, it was expected that workplace stress would cause the rate of heart disease in women to increase significantly. But it didn’t. In fact, he writes:

“Working women didn’t have more heart attacks. There were, however, two glaring statistical exceptions to the rule: Women developed significantly more heart disease if they performed menial clerical work or when they had an unsupportive boss. The work, in other words, wasn’t the problem. It was the subordination.”

Stress-induced sickness is, in large part, due to control or the lack thereof. According to the article:

“Researchers call it the “demand-control” model of stress, in which the damage caused by chronic stress depends not just on the demands of the job but on the extent to which we can control our response to those demands.”

Lehrer continues, “While a relentlessly intense job like a senior executive position leads to a slightly increased risk of heart disease and death, a job with no control is significantly more dangerous.”

Empowering, Engaging, and Improving Wellness

Is the demand-control model of workplace stress making employees more sick than ever? It’s an important question – and not just because of rising health care costs and an increasingly sharp laser-focus on productivity. Healthy, empowered employees are the ones who will stick with your company through tough times – and as the demand for high-performing employees increases, employee engagement is more and more critical.

According to an August Gallup Management Journal article, engagement and wellbeing go hand in hand. In “Engagement, Wellbeing, and the Downturn,” Jennifer Robison summarized the results of a March 2009 survey of engagement and wellbeing of US workers.

“Workers’ perception of their wellbeing also differed depending on their engagement level. In terms of their wellbeing, among engaged workers, 60% were thriving, 37% were struggling, and only 3% were suffering. Among workers who were not engaged, 47% were thriving and 48% were struggling, while 5% were suffering. Actively disengaged workers, on the other hand, showed much higher percentages of suffering and struggling wellbeing levels: only 28% were thriving, while 60% were struggling and 12% were suffering.”

How can employers engage their employees in this economy, and thereby improve wellbeing? Robison writes:

“There are many ways managers and executives can help employees manage their stress: frequent, honest, and informative communication; involving the workforce in understanding new strategies and explaining how they’re essential to the new plans; an emphasis on recognition for good work; and a focus on hope. ‘Everything we’ve seen suggests that trust, compassion, stability, and hope are what people need from leaders in times of trouble,’ says Jim Harter, Ph.D., Gallup’s chief scientist of workplace management and wellbeing and coauthor of 12: The Elements of Great Managing.

It seems simple: make your employees feel valuable. Communicate what the company is doing and why they are an important part. In other words, make them feel empowered. It will go a long way in keeping them in the fold, and might even help them stay healthy and live longer.