Dying for a Paycheck | Jeffrey Pfeffer

Summary of: Dying for a Paycheck: Why the American Way of Business Is Injurious to People and Companies
By: Jeffrey Pfeffer


Get ready to delve into the alarming world of workplace stress and its harrowing consequences for both employees and companies. In ‘Dying for a Paycheck,’ Jeffrey Pfeffer uncovers the harsh reality of how the American way of business is harming its people, leading to a staggering 120,000 preventable deaths each year. This summary outlines the crucial aspects of the book, providing insights into where and how this undeniable issue arises, from precarious gig economy jobs to unaffordable health insurance. We explore inspiring examples of companies seeking to make changes and posit possible routes to healthier, more sustainable workplaces for everyone.

Combating Workplace Stress

The majority of people face stress in the workplace, with 80 percent of Americans experiencing regular work-related stress. This can contribute to poor mental and physical health, as evident in testimonies from employees working at high-ranking companies. However, companies such as Aetna have shown that prioritizing employee well-being can benefit both workers and the company. The onus is on organizations to adopt policies that support their employees and reduce the harmful effects of workplace stress.

Stress in the workplace is a prevalent issue, impacting an astounding 80 percent of Americans. With work being an essential part of our lives, it is crucial to understand the consequences of such widespread stress on our well-being. Unhealthy work environments, like the one reported by an employee from the highly-ranked company Salesforce, can lead to a reliance on antidepressants, therapy sessions, and personal trainers—expenses that not everyone can afford.

The gig economy adds another layer of concern. By 2020, it is projected that 40 percent of the American workforce will belong to this category, characterized by unstable short-term contracts and low wages. This instability, coupled with the absence of paid time off, has resulted in a decline in both workplace safety and workers’ overall health, according to a review of 93 studies.

Despite this dire outlook, there are organizations that prioritize employee well-being. Aetna, an American health insurance company, serves as an exemplary model. After the CEO, Mark Bertolini, endured a significant personal health crisis, he decided to implement changes within the company to improve employees’ welfare. Initiatives like raising the minimum hourly wage, improving health insurance, and providing free meditation classes led to a reported 28 percent reduction in stress and a 20 percent increase in sleep quality for employees. Moreover, the company’s healthcare costs actually decreased.

Aetna’s case demonstrates the potential for a win-win solution where employees and organizations can thrive together. It is vital for more companies to follow suit and adopt policies that prioritize employee well-being, directly addressing the significant toll that workplace stress has on individuals worldwide.

Deadly Work Stress Epidemic

It’s no secret that secondhand smoke is dangerous, leading to public smoking bans in many US locations. Yet, surprisingly, workplace stress is equally lethal, causing up to 120,000 preventable American deaths annually. The US is unique in that work is not only a source of income but also where many obtain health insurance. Roughly 85,000 of these deaths stem from inadequate health coverage due to unemployment, freelance work, or insufficient employer-provided plans. An additional 28,000 deaths result from overwork, low job control, or minimal social support at work, with factors like global competition and 24/7 mobile technology availability contributing to these issues.

This work-related stress has severe consequences for our physical health, with a strong correlation between stress and various diseases, including multiple types of cancer. The financial toll is staggering too, with $190 billion in excess mental healthcare costs – nearly 8% of the total US healthcare expenditure.

Remarkably, if the United States followed the example set by Europe’s highly developed countries, at least half of these workplace stress-related deaths could be averted. European nations experience only half the work-related fatalities as the US due to greater healthcare spending and stronger workplace regulations. Emulating European models could save the US approximately 60,000 lives and a whopping $63 billion in healthcare expenses. The deadly workplace stress epidemic sweeping America demands an urgent reevaluation of current policies, prioritizing employee well-being and healthcare reform.

Layoffs: A Lose-Lose Situation

In 2008, when ArcelorMittal shut down Bethlehem Steel’s New York plant, it left 260 workers unemployed, resulting in tragic consequences such as heart attacks and death. Studies have consistently shown that layoffs lead to serious mental health issues, an increase in alcohol consumption, and a higher risk of heart attacks or even suicide. However, companies are also negatively impacted by layoffs through severance pay, potential lawsuits, decreased morale, and reduced productivity. As an alternative, businesses can follow the example of Southwest Airlines, who managed to remain profitable and safeguard employees’ well-being by not resorting to layoffs after the 9/11 attacks.

When ArcelorMittal closed the New York plant of bankrupt Bethlehem Steel in 2008, it left 260 workers without jobs. In the aftermath, tragedy followed when two former employees, aged 56 and 55, both suffered fatal heart attacks. These heartbreaking incidents are not isolated, but rather a direct consequence of layoffs that cause economic insecurity and provoke mental health issues.

Numerous studies from developed countries indicate a solid correlation between layoffs and premature death. One study analyzed 13,000 American adults who suffered heart attacks between 1992 and 2010, discovering that 70 percent of those cases occurred after losing a job. Furthermore, individuals who experienced over four job losses during that period had a 63 percent higher chance of having a heart attack than those who remained employed.

Similar trends are prevalent in other highly developed countries. In Sweden, researchers found that employees laid off between 1987 and 1988 witnessed doubled suicide rates within four years after losing their jobs. Another study showed that 20 weeks into unemployment, the alcohol consumption among laid-off workers increased by a staggering 400 percent.

Making matters worse, companies also suffer due to layoffs, facing various costs like severance pay, potential lawsuits, decreased morale among remaining employees, and worsened productivity. Layoffs fail to address the crux of the issue, which is revenue deficiency, not excessive costs. This is evident when stock prices drop following layoff announcements, confirming the company’s vulnerable state.

So, what is a viable alternative? Following the 9/11 airspace closure, major U.S. airline carriers laid off a total of 80,000 employees due to lost revenue. However, Southwest Airlines chose a different path: they refunded customers who requested it and maintained their promise to contribute $179 million to a workers’ profit-sharing plan. As a result, Southwest not only had a profitable year but by 2002, its market capitalization soared above the rest of the industry combined.

In conclusion, layoffs are a lose-lose situation for both employees and businesses but opting for creative solutions like Southwest Airlines can ensure profitability and protect the well-being of workers.

Reimagining Affordable Healthcare

Too many people in the United States face inadequate access to healthcare due to its high cost and lack of insurance. Each year, around 50,000 individuals die because they cannot access or afford healthcare services. Uninsured women with breast cancer face a 49% higher risk of not surviving the disease, and a long-term study found that anyone without insurance has a 40% increased risk of death. The decline in employer-provided healthcare is concerning, as in 2011, 40% of employers did not offer insurance to their employees, up from 30% in 2000.

In the case of Atlantic City casino workers, half of the jobs were lost since 2011 and many remaining jobs had their healthcare taken away. A survey commissioned by the workers’ union revealed that 72% of the workers struggled to pay bills due to high health-insurance costs, and half exhibited symptoms of depression. As healthcare costs rise, fewer employers are able to provide insurance, and even when coverage is available, employee contributions have significantly increased.

To maintain employee health and productivity while staying profitable, companies can consider innovative solutions like on-site doctors. This approach avoids dealing with expensive insurance companies while ensuring affordable or even free coverage for employees. Companies with as few as 400 employees have adopted this system, leading to decreased absenteeism and early prevention of diseases. In the current landscape, where universalized healthcare remains a distant dream, alternative solutions like on-site medical services could pave the way for getting employees the care they need without breaking the bank.

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