Jobs That Literally Make People Sick

Jobs That Literally Make People Sick

While effective human resource manage ment aims to create motivating jobs, poor leadership coupled with difficult circumstances can result in jobs that are so unpleasant that workers’ mental health begins to suffer. Researchers at the Australian National University analyzed data about working conditions and mental health in more than 7,000 adults over a seven-year period. They found that the mental health of workers in the worst of these jobs was no better than—and sometimes worse than—the mental health of unemployed adults.

The job characteristics that were mostly strongly associated with mental health were the job’s complexity and demands, job security, the perceived fairness of pay, and control over the job (for example, ability to decide how to perform tasks). In highly demanding jobs with low security, unfair pay, and little control, workers experienced declining mental health. Unemployment also had an impact on mental health, but it was not as severe.

People differ in what kinds of work they consider unbearable, but many would have that attitude toward working in an Alabama fish-processing plant. The rooms have to be kept cold, and they are wet as well. Some people would likely object to smelling fish all day long. Workers stand for at least 10 hours a day, making repetitive cuts. For all this, they earn minimum wage and limited benefits. In spite of these conditions, employers were able until recently to fill these positions with immigrant workers. But after Alabama passed a law requiring police to question individuals who they believe could be in the United States illegally, many of those workers left the state. Employers report difficulty filling jobs such as these with U.S. workers.


1.   What would be the consequences to an employer of having highly demanding jobs with low security, unfair pay, and little control?

2.   How could fish-processing plants like the one described here improve jobs so they can fill vacant positions profitably?

SOURCES: Elizabeth Dwoskin, “Do You Want This Job?” Bloomberg Businessweek, November 14, 2011, pp. 70–78; Stephen Long, “Bad Job Worse for Your Mental State than No Job at All,” PM, June 9, 2011,; “When a Job Is So Bad It Hurts,” The Wall Street Journal, March 29, 2011,; Matt McMillen, “For Mental Health, Bad Job Worse than No Job,” Health, March 14, 2011,

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