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Workplace Factors Can Influence Employee Health

UofL research links workplace culture to chronic disease risk in employees

LOUISVILLE With employee burnout high and the Great Resignation being felt throughout all employment sectors, pioneering new research from the University of Louisville demonstrates biological links between workplace culture and human health.

The UofL study is believed to be the first to connect biomarkers for chronic disease risk to factors such as stress, employee capacity for work assigned, workplace physical and social environments, and whether work is regarded as meaningful to the person performing it. The findings are published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

The study was conducted by Brad Shuck, EdD, professor of human resources and organizational development, UofL; Kandi Walker, PhD, professor, Department of Communication, UofL, and faculty affiliate, Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute; Joy Hart, PhD, professor, Department of Communication, UofL, and faculty affiliate, Christina Lee Brown Envirome Institute; and Rachel Keith, PhD, APRN, associate professor of medicine, UofL

These factors are part of a new “Work Determinants of Health” concept the UofL researchers have identified that they hope will become a model for both employers and employees to better understand the health impacts of workplace culture.

“For a long time, we’ve assumed that workplace culture can impact our health,” said Brad Shuck, an author on the study and organizational culture researcher in UofL’s College of Education and Human Development. “This study shows, in biological terms, that assumption is true and improving our understanding of these links could help both employees and employers make better, more informed decisions that keep everyone healthy and happy in their work environments.”

(L-r) UofL researchers Joy Hart, Kandi Walker, Brad Shuck, and Rachel Keith form a team that has demonstrated the link between work determinants of health and biomarkers for chronic disease risk.

In the study, conducted May to November in 2019, researchers asked participants to complete questionnaires on their well-being and work determinants of health factors, such as how engaged and positive or negative they felt about their work environment. Local participants in a cardiovascular risk cohort were recruited electronically to complete an electronic survey as part of a sub-study after completing and in-person visits where urine was collected for catecholamine measures.

The researchers then compared the survey results with biological samples that measure hormones signaling sympathetic nervous system activity. When higher than normal over a long period, these hormones indicate chronic stress and increased risk of cardiovascular disease and other chronic health conditions.

The results showed participants who reported greater well-being, engagement, and positive feelings toward their work environment had lower levels of these stress-associated hormones, while the opposite was true for participants reporting poor well-being, isolation, and negative feelings toward work.

“Stress is fine in smaller, short-term doses, and may even help us to finish an important project or solve a big crisis,” Keith says. “But if our work culture puts us under constant stress, this study suggests it can affect our health and our risk for chronic conditions over time.”

Stress and related burnout remain a leading cause of employee resignation, especially among younger workers. In a recent survey by Deloitte, about 46 percent of Gen Z and 45 percent of millennial workers reported feeling burned out by their work environments. Stress can negatively impact employee health – as the UofL study suggests – but it also can impact worker retention, as indicated by a fair number of both Gen Z and millennials reporting that they hoped to leave their jobs within two years. Shuck said better understanding of work determinants of health could help reduce burnout and improve both employee retention and health.

The work determinants of health concept and model, along with Shuck’s previous work to measure employee engagement, are protected through the UofL Office of Research and Innovation and are licensed or optioned to OrgVitals, an organizational metrics company he co-founded.

“Understanding these cultural factors and what contributes to an employee’s health and engagement in their work environment is good for everyone,” he said. “By understanding the work determinants of health, we can create better and healthier work environments that attract and retain great talent who want to be engaged.”