Sunday, 1 March 2009

Powerlessness can damage your health

How power is distributed in society can put innocent lives at risk. The less powerful you are in relation to others, the more likely you are to suffer ill health. We are not talking here about how the powerful may abuse their positions and inflict harm on those who cannot stand up to them. It is the mere fact that by virtue of being in a subordinate position that one becomes more prone to sickness and deterioration.

A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology study found those having to take more overtime tended to develop signs of cognitive impairment known to be a risk factor for dementia. Members of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health carried out the study by tracking more than 2,000 workers in the UK since the 1980s, and cross-referenced their scores on a range of brain function tests against their overtime records. Those who had done the most overtime had lower scores than others in terms of their reasoning and word-use ability.

Why would anyone keep working long hours with all the associated stress and exhaustion? They may be desperate to earn more to make ends meet, or they are simply not in a position to say no. In either case, they have to endure it because no other option is open to them.

The study did not differentiate between the seniority of the workers concerned, but anyone wondering if this has any bearing on the power-health relationship can refer to the study by Rose and Marmot (published in ‘British Heart Journal’) which looked at 17,000 workers with the same employer and found that death rates from heart disease were four times as high amongst the most junior workers as amongst the most senior administrators working in the same offices.

The reality is that the higher up you are in an organisation, the more control you would have over what you would spend your time doing, and how you would deal with the issues you face. By contrast, the lower down you are, the more you have to take orders you may not agree with, the less say you have over what hours you work, and any influence you have over key decisions dwindles unless you work for a very progressive employer.

This is mirrored by the impact of power distribution across society more widely. According to the study by Donkin, Goldblatt and Lynch (published in ‘Health Statistics Quarterly’), those with lower socio-economic status have shorter life expectancy than those with higher status – indeed by a margin of almost seven and a half years shorter for men (in England and Wales in the late 1990s).

So next time someone tells you that it is up to powerful people to amass resources and control for themselves and it’s nobody else’s business, remind them that any act of power distribution which intrinsically cuts down the life chances of other people is everyone’s business. We have a common interest in getting it right.

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