Study Shows Link Between Job Stress, Respiratory Infections

A combination of control and responsibility-taking can make\r\nwork more stressful and make a person more vulnerable to respiratory infections, according to new research.

Having high levels of control over one''s job responsibilities can backfire if a person lacks confidence on the job or has a propensity to take responsibility for negative outcomes at work, according to new research.

Such a combination of control and responsibility-taking can make work more stressful and make a person more vulnerable to infections, like bronchitis, influenza or even the common cold.

These findings were reported in the April issue of the Journal of Applied Psychology.

A combination of personality and job factors seem to put some people at risk of getting sick but not others in similar jobs, said researchers Dr. John Schaubroeck at Drexel University, Dr. James Jones of the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Dr. Jia Lin Xie, at the University of Toronto.

To find out which employees working for a survey research organization experienced stress from their demanding jobs when in a high or low job control situation, the researchers asked 217 employees about the following characteristics of their jobs: being responsible for other people; dealing with complex issues and information; and being able to control how tasks are carried out.

The employees were also asked how much confidence they had in doing their job effectively and their personal style for attributing responsibility when things go wrong on the job.

Some of the jobs studied were market researcher interviewer, data analyst and building maintenance duty.

Furthermore, to determine whether employee''s stress levels were making them more susceptible to bacterial and viral infections, their levels of immunoglobulin-A (IgA) antibodies from saliva and respiratory symptoms were measured. The antibodies attack disease cells that are associated with respiratory infections.

Researchers found that employees who perceived they had control over their job responsibilities but didn''t have confidence in their problem-solving abilities or who blamed themselves for bad outcomes were the most likely to experience stress.

Those type of job situations appeared to put these employees at a higher risk for getting infections indicated by their respiratory symptoms (sore throat, cough, flu), and saliva results that showed lower levels of the IgA antibodies, according to Schaubroeck.

"Our findings show that employees who don''t have confidence in their skills may find job control debilitating because they cannot utilize it effectively to cope with the demands of the job," wrote the researchers. "Rather than being an asset, job control becomes a source of continual frustration and vehicle for self-blame. The employees that have confidence in their skills seem to be more effective at utilizing job control to cope better with stressful job situations."

In most cases, employees who saw themselves as having control over their working conditions and did not blame themselves for negative outcomes suffered the least amount of stress even in a demanding job.

They had higher levels of IgA in their saliva and did not have as many respiratory illnesses as the employees in similar job situations but who did blame themselves for bad outcomes.

"The experience of stress seems to depend on whether the individual believes he or she should be able to prevent negative outcomes from occurring," said Schaubroeck. "For a long time, studies have reported that having more control is desirable from the standpoint of coping with stress, but these studies did not examine particular subpopulations of people who may buck this trend. Our research shows that increasing job control can be harmful for individuals who lack the capacity to use it or for who the control deepens their self-blame when things go wrong."

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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