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AN UNLIKELY PARADOX: Second-hand smoke better for us than poor workplace practices

If I were to ask you whether we should reintroduce smoking in the workplace, you would likely think that I was joking or quite possibly mad. The health implications of second-hand smoke are well documented and extremely serious. Second hand-smoke contains some 7,000 chemicals, many of which are toxic to humans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, even brief second hand smoke exposure can damage cells in ways that set the cancer process in motion.

It would be inconceivable that the UK government (or any other government that has implemented a ban for that matter) would consider reintroducing smoking in the workplace. Primarily due to the hazard second-hand smoke poses to human health and the public outcry that would likely ensue. Yet, second-hand smoke is far less toxic to human-health than some of the workplace practices in existence today.

Stanford Graduate School of Business’ Jeffrey Pfeffer’s research for his most recent book ‘Dying for a Paycheque’ found that some workplace practices are twice as harmful to health as second-hand smoke. In fact, low job control, long working hours and work/family conflict were each found to pose a greater risk of death than second-hand smoking. It begs the question, if we would protest at the idea of reintroducing smoking into the workplace, should we not be protesting even more strongly about the impact that poor workplace practices are currently having on our health and lifespans?

Understanding our physiology

Few people wake up in the morning and think about how their working day will impact their physiology (although they probably should). Like most people, I studied biology at school, but at no point did I learn about a fairly critical survival mechanism known as fight or flight. A mechanism that, when triggered, releases potent chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline. These chemicals were crucial in helping us fight or flee from predators and physical threats to our survival, by providing us with increased energy and quicker reactions. Fast forward several hundred thousand years and those threats have morphed into something far less physically threatening. However, we still trigger the same fight or flight mechanism, regardless of the type of ‘threat’ we perceive.

Over time, threats that might have lasted a few minutes to a few hours (such as stumbling across a sabre-toothed tiger), can now last several weeks, months or even years (being bullied or harassed at work). Our fight or flight mechanism was not designed to operate for prolonged periods. The proof, if you need it, can be seen by the toll that prolonged exposure to cortisol coursing through our veins can have on our brain and body. Over time, prolonged exposure to cortisol has been shown to shrink areas of the brain responsible for problem solving (our pre-frontal cortex) and memory (our hippocampus). Meanwhile, our bodies start to erode from the inside out, as the elevated levels of cortisol trigger chronic inflammation, which research has shown is a major cause of and contributor to a plethora of diseases.

How our workplaces are killing us

A bullying or micromanaging boss, whilst unpleasant, is unlikely to cause you physical harm, at least not on the surface. It is the wounds that are being inflicted below the surface of your skin, at a cellular level, that you should be concerned about. Too few people appreciate that our thoughts are electro-chemical reactions that trigger chemical reactions throughout the brain and body. The type of thought will influence the type of chemical produced. If we perceive a situation as a threat, we will trigger the release of cortisol and adrenaline, whether we mean to or not.

Too few workplaces factor in the effect that their workplace practices are having on those within their care. Practices such job insecurity due to redundancies, lack of autonomy, long-hours and work/family conflict all take their toll on our cells, prematurely ageing us. Scientists can measure our rate of biological ageing by measuring the length of our telomeres. Those who experience chronic negative stress at work tend to have shorter telomeres. Telomeres are the protective ‘caps’ at the end of our chromosomes, which shrink with each cell division. Once a telomere’s length becomes too short, the cell can no longer divide and it eventually dies. As a result, eventually, we die. In that way (although not perfect), telomere length is a good indicator for biological ageing.

In addition to the effect on our cells, workplace practices can have a more immediate impact on health and longevity. France Telecom’s former CEO and 6 managers are currently facing trial for their hard-line management style which is thought to have resulted in more than 19 suicides during a period of significant restructuring. According to the BBC, former CEO, Didier Lombard, is thought to have told senior managers in 2007 "I'll get them out one way or another, through the window or through the door,".

Whilst we may not be able to see the toxic air engulfing us and penetrating deep into our cells, the actions of senior management teams can be far more toxic than second-hand smoke. When we don’t feel safe, when trust and loyalty has disappeared, then there is a real and present risk to our long-term health. Simple things such as saying one thing and doing something different undermines trust. Championing the importance of company values, but promoting people up the ranks who clearly act against them, undermines trust and confidence and with it, people’s sense of safety. If we don’t feel safe, then we are most likely in a state of fight or flight.

Culture Change

If we had the option to reintroduce smoking in the workplace, we would not take it. Yet, unless we start to tackle some of the poor workplace practices currently in existence, the health benefits gained from introducing such a ban, will be non-existent. Worse still, poor workplace practices could be the equivalent of stuffing as many as 15 cigarettes into each one of your employees’ mouths each day and making them smoke them. Research published in 2015 found that social isolation was as bad for our health as a 15 a day smoking habit. If we feel socially isolated at work, we do not feel safe.

Creating an environment of psychological safety starts with trust, openness and vulnerability. If you have values, stick by them. If things aren’t going well, be open about it. If you don’t have the answer, that’s ok too. No one expects us to have all the answers all of the time. In fact, we build greater trust when we engage people in the conversation. Yet, too many decisions affecting the many are made my by too few.

Far too often decisions to lay-off staff are due to the pressure exerted by shareholders. If your Shareholders are more concerned about the amount of dividends they are going to receive than the lives of the people you employ, then it might be time to invest in different shareholders. At the height of the financial crisis Barry Wehmiller CEO Rob Chapman took the decision to not lay off any staff when under pressure to cut $10m in costs. Instead the company implemented a time off in lieu of pay (TOIL) programme which saw employees help each other out so that no one person had to suffer more than anyone else. The company consequently saved $20m in costs and made it through the crisis unscathed. May be it is time we started doing business differently, with people at the heart of the decisions we make.

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