Does health suffer after a job promotion?

Workers are facing difficult times in the current economic climate, competition is getting tougher, deadlines tighter and incomes lower. So it makes sense to think that a promotion might give you more control over your life and greater financial security. But will you really be better off if you get a promotion? A new study suggests your mental health can take a turn for the worse after a job promotion, and this is not a short-term effect.

Workers are facing difficult times in the current economic climate - competition is getting tougher, deadlines tighter and incomes lower. So it makes sense to think that a promotion might give you more control over your life and greater financial security. But will  you really be better off if you get a promotion?

new study suggests that your mental health can take a turn for the worse after a job promotion, and this is not a short-term effect.

"Getting a promotion at work is not as great as many people think," said Chris Boyce of Britain's University of Warwick, who presented the study at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society on April 23.

By the numbers: stress on the job

  • 40 per cent of workers reported their job was very or extremely stressful.
  • 25 per cent view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives.
  • 75 per cent of employees believe that workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago.
  • 29 per cent of workers felt quite a bit or extremely stressed at work;
  • 26 per cent of workers said they were "often or very often burned out or stressed by their work";
  • Job stress is more strongly associated with health complaints than financial or family problems.

Source: U.S. National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety

In the past 20 years, work stress has increased around the world due to globalization, increased competition and new technologies. In Canada, claims for mental illness — especially depression — have overtaken cardiovascular disease as the fastest growing category of disability costs. In the U.S., workers' compensation claims due to stress increased by about 38 per cent from 1992 to 2002.

Work stress can have all sorts of effects both on physical health and on mental well-being. People who are stressed at work not only have higher rates of burnout, lower self-esteem, depression and anxiety, but also migraines and high blood pressure, according to a 2005 paper in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Some researchers have suggested that workers with higher job status are healthier. However, Boyce and his research team tested this notion and found the opposite is true.

The researchers interviewed more than 10,000 adults in Britain every year from 1991 to 2005. They looked at three possible types of promotions: workers promoted from non-supervisor to supervisor, from supervisor to manager and from non-supervisor to manager.

Better job no guarantee of better health

When the researchers looked at the results for those who worked for at least five consecutive years, they found no evidence that their health improved after their promotion. But they did find that people who had been promoted had more mental strain.

Stress, burnout and mental health

  • Depression, anxiety, stress and burnout affects one in 10 workers in the U.S. each year.
  • In Finland, more than 50 per cent of workers have some kind of stress-related symptom, such as anxiety, depressive feelings, physical pain, social exclusion and sleep disorders.
  • Depressive disorders make up almost seven per cent of premature retirements in Germany.
  • Nearly 33 per cent of workers in the U.K. experience mental health problems.

Source: International Labour Office, 2002 study

What's more, mental health got worse faster for those who had the biggest promotions —  that is, those who had jumped straight to a managerial role from a non-supervisory role.

The researchers also found that people went to the doctor less often after they got promoted, which would seem to indicate they got healthier. But the researchers stressed that this change "may be something to worry about rather than celebrate," as it might be due to the fact that promoted workers may have less time to look after their own health, such as for regular checkups.

Further, the study found that people working in the private sector suffered more psychological strain after a promotion than those in the public sector. "It could be that the public sector has special features that make it possible to gain health protection from improved work status," the researchers suggested.

Dr. Douglas Saunders, an assistant professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto, said the greater stability, predictability and benefits enjoyed by public-sector workers might be the reason.

"These people feel a sense of security and comfort" that might help prevent stress after the job change, he said.

According to a 2002 Statistics Canada survey, prolonged job stress was linked to increased risk of work injuries, migraines and high blood pressure.

Almost one in five men and women who perceived their regular work days to be stressful took at least one disability day during the 2 weeks prior to the survey.

The effects of stress on workers affect employers as much as the employees themselves. The 2002-2003 Staying@Work survey found that 79 per cent of employers surveyed said depression, anxiety and other mental health-related conditions were the leading cause of their short-term disability claims.

One report put the total cost of mental health issues to Canadian business at $35 billion annually. In the U.S.. employees who miss work because of stress, anxiety or a related problem are off for an average of 20 days and the cost of a day's absence can be 1.5 to 2 times the worker's salary.

Employers can prevent extended sick leave due to stress through management training and leadership development. One useful tool for businesses is the prevention kit for work-related mental health problems launched by the chair of Occupational Health and Safety Management at Laval University. The kit — Mental Health at Work ... From Defining to Solving the Problem — provides ways that workers and organizations can deal with this problem.

Getting proactive

Some employers are using employee assistance programs (EAPs) that support issues related to work and family life. The average annual cost of such services per eligible employee was estimated to be about $28 for inhouse programs and about $22 for outside programs. These costs are fairly low when compared with the costs of recruiting and training replacements, estimated at about $50,000 for employers such as IBM.

The savings for each employee who gets access to treatment can be as high as $5,000 to $10,000 each year. Also, workers with depression who take appropriate medication save an average of 11 sick days a year.

At the University of Saskatchewan, the EAP provides faculty and staff, as well as their immediate families, with counselling and consultation services. The program includes training and other stress prevention resources.

People who are unhappy at work take more sick days.

In 2002, there were 129 disability days for every 100 workers who were unhappy at work, compared with 47 days off for workers who were happy at work.

The annual cost of work time lost to stress was estimated at $12 billion in 2002.

Source: Statistics Canada

Air Canada and its labour unions have a joint EAP for employees and their families. Specially-trained members of the union, management and non-management, available at work, direct employees to the right professional resources.

The Employee Assistance Services (EAS) bureau of Health Canada provides a comprehensive EAP that includes trauma response, wellness and organizational development expertise and services. This office has provided professional and personal counselling to members of public and para-public organizations and their families in Canada, the U.S. and Europe for 25 years.

Whatever the type of stress-prevention policy that an employer chooses, they should have the following key elements, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD):

  • A clear statement to show commitment to promote health and well-being for all employees.
  • The support of senior management.
  • Constant review to ensure the policies maximize employee well-being.
  • Review of key indicators of employee well-being.
  • Effective advice, support, counselling and training.
  • Evaluation of all well-being initiatives.

The positive effects of such policies are considerable both to the employee and employer. When these measures are in place, promoted workers can more easily step into their new roles with a sense of confidence and remain healthy, while the organization reaps the benefits in terms of financial outcomes.