How Your Boss Can Ruin Your Health

Wellbeing can be profoundly affected by some very surprising elements of life.

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When it comes to wellbeing, you probably know it has something to do with eating more vegetables and getting some exercise, but you probably don't know the impact your boss can have on your triglycerides. Or, how important it is to chit-chat with a coworker in the next cubicle, or E-mail back and forth with colleagues who are also working remotely. And you probably didn't know that a job isn't essential to career wellbeing. In his new book Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements, Gallup guru and bestselling author Tom Rath, together with coauthor Jim Harter, elucidates those aspects of our lives that have the most critical impact on our career, physical, social, financial, and community wellbeing. Rath recently spoke with U.S. News. Excerpts

[See 10 ways to make any job healthier.]

How important is career wellbeing on our overall wellbeing?

We've been tracking employment status and how engaged people are in their jobs. We've looked at the way that affects diagnosis rates of anxiety and depression and the like. Let's say the baseline is a rate of people who not only have a job but who like what they're doing each day, so they're pretty engaged in their jobs—that group has the very lowest rates of subsequent diagnoses of anxiety and depression, as you might expect. But what's interesting is if you're just in a job that you're not engaged in, you don't like what you're doing on a day-to-day basis—that alone doubles the chances of being diagnosed with depression over the next 12 months. If you're unemployed and looking for employment, that triples the chances from that original baseline rate, which is 4 percent. It goes from 4 to about 8 to about 12 in terms of odds of being diagnosed by a clinician with depression over the next year or so.

You note in the book that sustained unemployment is a particular threat to wellbeing.

I guess the scary thing for our economy as a whole is that there may be a lot more damaging psychological implications of the recession than most of us are thinking about today—when you think about the numbers that suggest about half of the people unemployed today have been unemployed for more than six months. Some of the research we look at in the book shows there's really nothing more detrimental in life than a prolonged period of sustained unemployment.

So were you able to see any ways that could be mitigated?

Definitely. That was one of the encouraging things. As long as there's something you can honestly look forward to when you wake up every morning. So when you roll out of bed, you have something you look forward to doing that day, even if that's volunteering or it's time taking care of a grandchild or a niece or a nephew or whatever it might be. That can certainly give you as much career wellbeing as you need, even if you're not getting a paycheck.

[See how to find a job after a long time unemployed.]

Do certain careers have higher rates of wellbeing?

We see slightly different rates based on whether people are employed part-time versus full-time and hourly versus salaried, and we see a little bit lower rates overall when you look at jobs that involve a lot of manual labor. But what's been the most interesting is that we actually see more variance within a single organization than we ever see across industries or across organizations. So, no matter how well-managed you think an organization might be—being engaged in your job is so strongly dependent on the quality and effort that the manager of that work unit puts forward.

Managers have an impact on physical wellbeing as well?

Correct. As a worker's engagement increases, we see that their total cholesterol and triglycerides go down. And some studies have shown how people who have bosses they've really hated over the years are more susceptible to heart attack and stroke. It sounds like a little bit of stretch at first when you hear your manager might impact your physical health, your cholesterol, and your risk of having a stroke. But when you think about the role that stress plays on the physiology of what's going on inside our bodies on a day-to-day basis, and think back to one of the worst managers you've ever had, it starts to make a little bit of sense.