Work conditions, including low levels of social support and high levels of stress, can accurately predict the development of diabetes over the long term — even in employees who appear to be healthy otherwise, according to new research.
The study, led by Sharon Toker, Ph.D., of Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Management, found that employees who reported having a high level of social support at work had a 22 percent lesser chance of developing diabetes over the course of the 3.5-year-long study.
Conversely, the researchers found that those who described themselves as either over- or underworked were 18 percent more likely to develop the disease.
The findings paint a grim picture, according to Toker.
“You don’t want to see working populations have an increasing rate of diabetes,” she said. “It’s costly to both employees and employers, resulting in absenteeism and triggering expensive medical insurance.”
For the study, researchers recruited 5,843 individuals who visited a health center in Tel Aviv for a routine physical examination sponsored by their employer. On these initial visits, all participants were healthy and had no indication of diabetes, the researchers noted.
Participants in the study included both men and women, with a mean age of 48. The results were controlled for various risk factors, including age, family history, activity level, and body mass index, researchers noted.
To assess whether physical and psychological strain caused by the work environment could predict the development of diabetes, Toker and her fellow researchers surveyed the participants according to an “expanded job strain model,” which takes into account measures of social support, perceived workload, and perceived control over work pace and objectives.
The participants were followed for 41 months. During that time, 182 developed diabetes, according to Toker.
When these results were analyzed in relation to reported work conditions, social support emerged as a strong protective factor against the development of the disease. People who felt supported were significantly less at risk for diabetes than their unsupported peers, she said.
Workload was another correlation, with employees who felt either overworked or underworked at increased risk.
The results highlight some of the negative effects of our changing work environment, in which employees are putting in more hours than ever before, Toker said.
Beyond the hours spent in the office, technology allows us to be constantly connected, heightening expectations that work will be completed in non-working hours, ultimately increasing workloads, she said. This takes a heavy toll on our health, she said.
One of the most interesting findings of the study — that a too-small workload is as harmful as a too-large workload — shows that reducing the load of a busy employee may not have the desired effect, Toker points out. Employees will be stressed when overloaded, but they still need to feel challenged to be satisfied in their jobs, she explained.
She suggested that employers focus on finding the right balance in terms of workload and take the initiative to ensure their employees get the necessary social support, whether that includes a network of emotional support, praising good work performance or finding ways to improve office communication.
The study was published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology.