Right job fit makes for healthier workers

By Marilyn Elias – USA TODAY – May 21, 2001

Poor job fit can make people sick. "It’s not that ‘the job is the problem’ or ‘the person is the problem’ . . . . . you’ve got ‘the wrong person in the wrong place doing the wrong thing’."

Employees who enjoy lots of decision-making latitude in how they do complex jobs have long been thought to enjoy better health than lower-level co-workers, such as clerks or menial laborers. But power apparently can backfire. If kings and queens of the hill lack confidence or tend to blame themselves for bad outcomes at work, they’re hit by more illness than their less autonomous colleagues, a new study suggests.

Ample job control is too stressful "for those without the confidence or personality to use it well," and that impairs their immune systems, says John Schaubroeck, organizational behavior researcher at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His study is thought to be the first to check workers for a key disease-fighting antibody (IgA) in looking at how job demands and personality can affect health. With co-authors James Jones and Jia Lin Xie, he gave Personality and job questionnaires to 217 employees at a survey research firm. Schaubroeck’s team also asked about chronic respiratory symptoms and cold and flu episodes in the past three months. Among major findings:

The healthiest. People with "demanding" jobs (complex or responsibility for others), who had lots of autonomy and confidence, and indulged in little self-blame: They had the most IgA and the fewest upper respiratory episodes. They averaged zero illness or close to that over three months.

Next healthiest. Those who lacked confidence but held jobs offering few demands and little control: Even if they tended to blame themselves for glitches, "the opportunity to self-blame doesn’t arise often because they don’t have big responsibilities," so they’re under little stress, Schaubroeck says.

Somewhat less healthy. Confident folks with low-level jobs: "They lack the control they need to use that self-confidence" and may feel stressed at work, he says.

Least healthy. High-powered employees with lots of autonomy, little confidence and a penchant for beating themselves up when things go awry at work: They had the least IgA. Over the previous three months, they averaged two or more bouts of cold or flu, lasting approximately two weeks with intense symptoms.

Poor job fit can make people sick, says University of Texas-Arlington organizational psychologist James Campbell Quick. "It’s not that ‘the job is the problem’ or ‘the person is the problem’ . . . . . you’ve got ‘the wrong person in the wrong place doing the wrong thing’." Some people are temperamentally "primed" for strong physical reactions to stress and self-blame. They may benefit from learning stress relief skills, Quick says. But if they can’t change, this high stress level may impair immune function. "Insecure, anxious people are just not equipped to deal with discretionary latitude."