NEW YORK: Good relationships with your co-workers and a convivial, supportive work environment may add years to your life, a new study has found.
Published recently in Health Psychology, the study by a group of Israeli scientists found that employees who reported low social support at work were 2.4 times more likely to die during the two decades, compared with their colleagues who said they had a good social support system in the workplace.
The study tracked 820 adults with an average age of 41 who worked 8.8-hour days for about 20 years - a third of whom were women.
During the study period, 53 people died, most of whom had very few social connections with their co-workers. Lack of emotional support at work, in fact, was associated with a 140 per cent increased risk of dying in the next 20 years, the researchers found.
The findings held up even after the researchers controlled for factors such as age, gender, obesity, smoking, alcohol use, blood sugar, cholesterol, depression and anxiety.
'We spend most of our waking hours at work, and we don't have much time to meet our friends during the weekdays,' co-author Sharon Toker of the department of organisational behaviour at Tel Aviv University in Israel said in a statement. 'Work should be a place where people can get necessary emotional support.'
Dr Toker and her colleagues surveyed the study volunteers about their relationships with their supervisors and peers.
They found that peer or informal social support at work was a more potent predictor of health and longevity than relationships with a supervisor or boss, reported the journal. This effect was significant among employees aged 38 to 45, but not in those younger or older.
Study participants were also asked if they took initiative at work and if they had the freedom to make their own decisions. Men did better when they were given more control at work, while women with the same amount of control actually had shorter lifespans.
Specifically, women who reported significant control over their tasks and workflow were 70 per cent more likely to die during the 20-year period, the study showed.
Exactly what is behind this finding is not known, but the study authors suggest that women in positions of power may be overwhelmed by the need to be tough at work and still carry out stressful duties at home, the journal reported.
The study authors also noted that the modern workplace often lacks a supportive environment, said the journal. Many people telecommute; others communicate via e-mail even if they are in the same office.
Coffee corners where people can sit and talk, informal social outings for staff members and/or a virtual social network may encourage employees to feel more connected, the researchers suggested.
'Being happy at work can be a huge productivity booster, and happy people work better with others, are more creative, have more energy, get sick less often, learn faster and worry less about mistakes,' Dr Alan Manevitz, a psychiatrist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York who was not involved in the study, told the journal.
But the study could not answer whether the happy, healthy employee is the chicken or the egg, Dr Manevitz noted. Are these employees happy because they work in a supportive environment, he asked, or does their positive energy spill over into how they perceive their workplace?
New companies like Google and Zappos are famous for their 'work hard, play hard' credos, and this really speaks to balance, he said.
These companies break down the traditional workplace hierarchies and create safe zones where people can approach one another freely, but this works only in companies where people are not worried about losing their jobs, he said. Due to the economy, 'job security has gone out the window', he told the journal.
Dr Elyse Schimel, a psychologist in private practice in New York, told the journal that 'if you are in a hostile work environment, but don't have feasible options to leave, you want to get balance elsewhere in your life'.
'There are buffers that can help you cope with stress including exercise, sleeping well, eating well, family support and social support,' she was quoted as saying.