WASHINGTON – Kayla D’Alonzo had been working as a production assistant at an event planning company in the San Francisco Bay Area for almost a year when she was diagnosed with anxiety and depression disorders.
D’Alonzo, who was 25 at the time, said she had never faced mental health issues before. “I would wake up crying, go to bed crying,” she said. “I would have crying episodes during work.” It became clear to her that the work was taking a toll: She said she was constantly on call, frequently yelled at by supervisors and customers, overworked and underpaid. She soon quit.
D’Alonzo’s plight fits in with the results of two new studies published this month, revealing that her experiences could represent a larger trend in occupational health. The studies show that employees in business operations occupations like hers are surprisingly likely to report fair or poor health.
One study, published in the August issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, shows that workers are more likely to self-report fair or poor health if they work in business operations occupations, which includes event planning, marketing, and human resources.
“This group hasn’t been targeted very often because they aren’t thought to have the highest health risk,” said lead author Sara Luckhaupt, in an interview. After adjusting for sociodemographic factors such as race, age, and education, she found that business operations workers are 58 percent more likely to self-report fair or poor health than workers in all other occupations.
Self-rated health is a widely used assessment tool that has been shown to be predictive of mortality. Luckhaupt’s study uses data from the 2010 National Health Interview Survey.
Traditionally, workers in blue-collar jobs have been considered most vulnerable for poor health, and for good reason. Manufacturing and industrial jobs bring with them a host of physical risks, including exposure to chemicals, fumes, vibration and noise. Statistically, however, Luckhaupt’s study reveals that other factors may be playing a more significant role in shaping the health of production workers.
The study was limited by the broad occupation categories used, Luckhaupt explained. “We don’t have very specific information about the jobs,” she said. “One subgroup within that group could be driving that result.”
But researchers posited some potential reasons for the association between business operations jobs and poor health, including complex jobs and low autonomy.
“Often what creates stress is [when] you don’t give people enough resources to do their job,” said Jack Dennerlein, professor at Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences. What’s more, some stressors traditionally associated with blue-collar jobs––including being paid hourly wages, being on call, and being contractual––are now emerging in other occupations, he added. “What we’re seeing is blue-collar type of working conditions seeping its way into white-collar jobs,” he said.
‘It could be a constellation of factors including job insecurity, long hours and odd hours, lack of benefits, deadlines and complex situations,” said David Hurtado, assistant professor at the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences. He added that it’s difficult to make conclusive claims without more research into this occupation group.
The glamor associated with the titles of many business operations jobs often belie the poor pay and demanding, uncertain working conditions employees are faced with, Dennerlein said. D’Alonzo, who now manages a fitness center, called the event industry “brutal” and said her peers often reported being “exhausted, tired [and] annoyed.”
A second study, published in the August issue of the American Journal of Public Health, found that business operations professionals have the third highest adjusted prevalence of fair or poor self-rated health, after workers in service and legal industries. The study uses data from the 2012-2013 U.S. Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, and includes information from 22 standard occupation groups across 17 states.
“The fact that [the studies] are both coming out at the same time and they have similar stories is really important,” said Jessica Williams, assistant professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center. “The idea is to [try] to remove the blame from individual workers and recognize these health problems have causes that are at higher levels of organization.”
But because both papers are limited by a lack of specificity, it is hard to deduce whether there is something inherent about business operations jobs that is causing poor health in workers, researchers said.
“One of the issues is that…who chooses which occupation is not random,” Williams said, explaining that it is possible people in worse health may be more likely to choose office jobs.
Regardless, Williams said the reports are significant reminders that occupation and health are inextricably connected, even for professionals whose jobs have no obvious risk factors. “Work and health are linked, and…certain occupations might have different or greater risks for health than others,” she said.