How Safe Is Your Job? Why Self-Control Matters For Physical and Mental Health

Tuesday, August 09, 2016 by Meg   •   Filed under General

The loss of control can do more than make you super pissed-off, particularly for those of us more inclined to buck assimilation. 

Me? Combative? Seriously, that's not a fucking surprise, is it?

But according to choice researcher Dr. Sheena Iyengar, author of, The Art of Choosing, lack of choice may trigger physical health problems as opposed to purely emotional ones1.

Stress and Physical Health  

Iyengar's research is backed up by a huge longitudinal study, published in "Lancet"2, where British employees were compared on elements such as type of job and health conditions over a thirty year period. Researchers found that those in lower employment grades had higher rates of health issues like angina, chronic bronchitis and heart issues. Self-reported health was also lower in these employees than their higher-grade counterparts. In addition, researchers connected low control and low satisfaction to these health issues. 

According to Iyengar, this lack of control element supports a more complex notion that centers on autonomy as a factor in mental  and physical health, as opposed to more simple pay-grade correlations. Iyengar sites the fact that those with less control over their work--say, the secretary who spent her day running for the boss--had more back pain, physical illness and mental health problems like anxiety and depression. The boss--who got to exert autonomous control over the workload and tasks for each day--fared better. 

"Oh, you mean people who have more control don't feel quite so tense as they aren't crippled under the weight of other's expectations? You're like fucking Nancy Drew."

Iyengar also asserts that it wasn't even the actual control itself, but rather the amount of control employees perceived themselves to have.When the amount of control people had was measured, the amount of time in autonomous tasks did not matter as much as the amount of perceived control. Not surprisingly, those with higher-ranking positions thought they were in control far more than lower-ranking employees, despite sometimes similar locus of control in daily scheduling. So even though some lower-grade employees actually spent as much time controlling their environment as higher-paid workers, as long as they believed they had less control, they had worse mental and physical health outcomes.

"Mind over matter. Tell yourself you're a goddamn princess. Don't question why princesses have to take out the trash JUST DO IT!"

Research by primatologist Robert Sapolsky, author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, backs these claims. In his studies, Sapolsky found that lower-ranking primates in hierarchal societies tended to have higher levels of stress hormones, hormones which tend to lead to many of the same physical complications reported in the British study3. While these lower-ranking primates tended to have control removed from them as a matter of practice, Sapolsky does seem to agree that perceived control matters a great deal for stress response. 

So, higher stress at lowered control, either perceived or actual, may result in these negative emotional and physical outcomes. 

But how to address such a thing? As Iyengar says, "We have the ability to create choice by changing our perception of the world."

Unfortunately, there are many circumstances in today's society where women and men alike find themselves in positions where the lack of choice may be, say, a legal mandate as opposed to simply reframing an experience of workload. According to this research, such issues are not only unfair, but potentially physically dangerous to those whose ability to choose may be affected.

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Topic-Relevant Resources

The Art of Choosing
Research on personal choice and its implications for mental health

Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers
Primatologist/biologist Robert Sapolsky on stress and your brain. Good stuff.