Study: Your Hostile Workplace May Be Killing You

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“My job is killing me.” Who among us hasn’t issued that complaint at least once? Now a new study suggests that your dramatic grousing may hold some scientific truth.

The 20-year study, by researchers at Tel Aviv University, sought to examine the relationship between the workplace and a person’s risk of death. Researchers recruited 820 adults who had undergone a routine physical exam at a health clinic in 1988, and then interviewed them in detail about their workplace conditions — asking how nice their colleagues were, whether their boss was supportive and how much autonomy they had in their position.

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The participants ranged in age from 25 to 65 at the start of the study and worked in a variety of fields, including finance, health care, manufacturing and insurance. The researchers tracked the participants through their medical records: by the study’s conclusion in 2008, 53 people had died — and they were significantly more likely than those who survived to report having a hostile work environment.

People who reported having little or no social support from their co-workers were 2.4 times more likely to die during the course of the study than those who said they had close, supportive bonds with their workmates. Interestingly, the risk of death was tied only to people’s perceptions of their co-workers, not their bosses. People who reported negative relationships with their supervisors were no more likely to die than others.

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The study was observational, so it could not determine whether toxic workplace environments caused death, only that it was correlated with the risk. But the findings add to the evidence that having a supportive social network decreases stress and helps foster good health. Being exposed to chronic stress, on the other hand, contributes to depression, ill health and death.

One factor that mitigated the association between unfriendly co-workers and death was people’s perception of control over their jobs. Men who said they had more autonomy at work had a lower risk of dying during the study period than men with less freedom. As Jonah Lehrer noted for Wired:

This makes sense: the only thing worse than an office full of a—holes is an office full of a—holes telling us what to do.

However, the opposite was true for women: those who reported having power at work had a 70% increased risk of death, compared with those with a perceived lack of control. That may be because higher-powered women had more life responsibilities than men — many were working mothers — so the added level of control and responsibility at work may have strained their work-life balance and compounded their stress overall.

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Meanwhile, there’s some evidence that workplaces are growing ever less civil: research presented this month at the American Psychology Association found that 86% of the 289 workers at three Midwestern firms surveyed reported incivility at their job, including rudeness, bad manners and insults. Economic conditions like layoffs, longer hours and less pay may be to blame.

So what’s to be done? Every workplace has hierarchies and antagonistic personalities. But knowing that your co-workers may have a powerful impact on your overall health and life span, it might be wise to foster at least a few good relationships on the job. You’re spending 40 hours a week with these people — you may as well make it count.

The new study was published in Health Psychology.

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Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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