Another fascinating little report from Jonah Lehrer, this time in Wired, about the relationship between mortality and stress in the workplace. The researchers talk about the correlation between “control” and stress, namely, that those with more control over their work, while shouldering additional responsibility, ultimately experience less negative stress and therefore live longer. (Oddly enough, “control” is being used here as a corollary to freedom – the freedom from being controlled – rather than its opposite, which is how we normally talk about it). As Lehrer so wisely points out, being told what to do, constantly and by someone who you don’t like/love, is an actual killer! Or, as the King James puts it, the letter killeth… (2 Cor 2:6). Factor in any religious baggage, i.e. God as demanding boss rather than, say, a loving parent, and a premature death almost seems like, to quote David Brent, a forgone conclusion…

Conversely, people thrive in an atmosphere of liberty and affection, professional or otherwise. That is to say, grace not only demolishes the hierarchies that the Law creates, putting people on an equal footing, it literally gives life:

The researchers discovered is that office conditions matter. A lot. In particular, the risk of death seemed to be correlated with the perceived niceness of co-workers, as less friendly colleagues were associated with a higher risk of dying. (What’s troubling is that such workplaces seem incredibly common.) While this correlation might not be surprising – friendly people help reduce stress, and stress is deadly – the magnitude of the “friendly colleague effect” is a bit unsettling: people with little or no “peer social support” in the workplace were 2.4 times more likely to die during the study, especially if they began the study between the ages of 38 and 43. In contrast, the niceness of the boss had little impact on mortality. What’s driving this effect? Why are caustic co-workers so unhealthy? One interesting factor influencing the correlation between peer social support and mortality was the perception of control. This makes sense: the only thing worse than an office full of [so-and-so’s] is an office full of [so-and-so’s] telling us what to do.

Furthermore, this model of workplace stress being driven by the absence of control has plenty of empirical support. The most impressive support comes from the Whitehall study, an exhaustive longitudinal survey launched in 1967 that tracked some 28,000 British men and women working in central London. What makes the study so compelling is its uniformity. Every subject is a British civil servant, a cog in the vast governmental bureaucracy. They all have access to the same health care system, don’t have to worry about getting laid off, and spend most of their workdays shuffling papers.

The British civil service comes with one other feature that makes it ideal for studying the health effects of stress: It’s hierarchical, with a precise classification scheme for ranking employees. This hierarchy comes with dramatic health consequences. After tracking thousands of civil servants for decades, the Whitehall data revealed 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.

Why were people in the lower ranks of Whitehall dying at a younger age? The Whitehall researchers, led by Michael Marmot, eventually concluded that the significant majority of health variation was caused by psychosocial factors, most notably stress. People of lower status in the Whitehall study experienced more negative stress, and this stress was deadly.

The recurring theme in the self-reports of people like Marjorie isn’t the sheer amount of stress – it’s the total absence of control. This led to 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. “The man or woman with all the emails, the city lawyer who works through the night has high demands,” Marmot writes. “But if he or she has a high degree of control over work, it is less stressful and will have less impact on health.” The Whitehall data backs up this model of workplace stress: 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.