An Interview with Jeffrey Pfeffer: Playing the Long Game

Hiring and recruiting new employees is an exciting endeavor. It means an opportunity for skilled people to profoundly contribute to a company’s mission while in return receiving commensurate pay, comprehensive health insurance, and the perfect work-life balance. Does this synergistic relationship sound too good to be true?

That’s because, at most companies, it is. According to Jeffrey Pfeffer, Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, the workplace is the fifth leading cause of death. Moreover, stress in the workplace can lead to other effects aside from mortality, including the degradation of physical and mental health, decreased marital satisfaction, and increased chronic and acute illness. Missing work due to illness typically exacerbates stress because missed work means a mountain of emails and tasks will be waiting upon return; it can also mean bringing home less money. Offering a benefit package with wellness programs, paid vacation time, full health packages, and paid paternity leave seems unachievable, especially if a company is not, well, Google.

W3RKWELL linked up with Pfeffer, author of Dying for a Paycheck, to discuss health in the business sector. “Employee health is not the responsibility of the employee,” Pfeffer said. “Employers should create a healthy environment for the people who have entrusted their health and lives to them. But, most companies don’t serve as good stewards for the people who spend their lives working for them.”


Small or large companies may hold the belief that they have too many or too few employees to offer perks or other added benefits. However,  modern, forward-thinking companies—small and large—are striving to create work environments that promote, or at the very least avoid degrading, employee health. Whole Foods (86,000+ employees) offers personal wellness programs and continuing education opportunities for its employees. Medium-sized company Patagonia (1,400+ employees) summits the corporate-health industry by providing 100 percent of employees with company-paid health coverage, $900 annual tuition reimbursement, 18 days of paid-time off after one year of full-time employment, 80 days of paid maternity leave, and 60 days of paid paternity leave. On a smaller scale, Hydro Flask (88 employees) offers a company-paid ski day each season, weekly Friday lunches, and flexible start times. These key players demonstrate that it is possible to achieve a healthy work environment no matter the company size.

Job-seekers are actively looking for companies that offer  benefits for modern life, and health-centric companies have a competitive edge on any industry’s biggest investment—it’s people. One study found that recruiting and retaining a happy and healthy workforce leads to creative thinking, better problem solving, and collaborative teamwork, which makes both the company’s people and the profit-seeking Gordon Gekkos of the world happy.

Below, Pfeffer outlines common reasons for workplace stress and shares with W3RKWELL some company health hacks.


The era of the 9-to-5 workday fades into distant memory as longer working hours become the standard. This costs more than missed time with family and friends, as Pfeffer mentions. What is the reason for long work days? Employees are required to work long hours by some companies, and if they are not formally required to work long hours, top performers may feel indirect pressure to work longer hours to remain competitive amongst peers. Behavior analysis, the research-based backing to human behavior utilized by W3RKWELL, highlights that positive reinforcement strengthens behaviors—making a behavior more likely to occur in the future. Bosses who promote, monetarily compensate, and loyally recognize employees who hustle too hard are reinforcing working long hours instead of promoting and reinforcing a healthy, balanced work week. This insight offers leaders critical information on the part they play in the health of their employees.

Long hours are actually not beneficial for a company or the individual, and are not associated with better work output, as mentioned in a study referenced in Dying for Paycheck. Tired employees are mistake-prone, which means companies will spend time and money correcting errors made by burned-out employees, like adding an extra zero to a budget to display greater revenue when there is actually a budget deficit, or deleting a document that took hours of work to create.

After 48 hours of work per week, performance and productivity fall while increasing the risk for heart disease. Over a 10-year period, people who work more than 10 hours per day are 45 percent more likely to have a heart attack (Conway, Pompeii, Roberts, Follis, Gimeno, 2016). And, just bumping that 10-hour work day to an 11-hour work day suggests that person is 67 percent more likely to have a heart attack. Yes, you heard this right—increasing work hours is highly correlated with heart attacks.

Other culprits of stress and health degradation  in the workplace include shift-work, which is associated with unpredictable work hours and low pay. If you guessed low pay stresses people out, too, you’re right.  In fact, Pfeffer outlines the top ten work-based exposures that negatively impact employee health:


No health insurance

Shift work (changing schedules)

Long work hours (40+)

Job insecurity

Family-to-work and work-to-family conflicts

Low control or decision-making over one’s job

High job demands (i.e.,pressure to produce results quickly)

Low social support (from co-workers or others who might mitigate work stress)

Job unfairness (work or job decisions perceived to be made unfairly)

Ready to invest in your employees but unsure of where to start? Below we explore some ways to become a more health-centric workplace.

Modern, Health-centric Design:

1. Set a positive example as a leader: Commit to working fewer hours, being more time efficient, and creating a healthy work space. Employees will follow the actions of their leaders.

2. Require employees take company-holiday time. (On average, Americans have seven vacation days left at the end of the year.)

3. Give employees sick days. Pfeffer passionately insisted companies allow and encourage employees to stay home and rest when sick. (Remember what happened at Chipotle? E. coli. While we’re not accountants at Chipotle, it is safe to assume this cost more than employee sick days.)

4. Clearly insist on boundaries between work and home. Recognize when boundaries are being crossed, and don’t expect employees to work during nights or holidays. “Forecast work demands and staff adequately,” Pfeffer said. “If one knows there will be demands that tax the human system, why not plan and resource accordingly?  Because most organizations really do not care about human health and will trade lives for pennies. Why does Kaiser-Permanente have a lower level of physician burnout than most health care systems? They prioritize physician well-being and reflect that priority in their policies.”

5. Go Dark. Sound too spooky? Nope. It’s just one of those cool things Google tried out by telling people at their Dublin office to leave all beeping devices at the office and called it something cool: Dublin goes dark.

6. For the standard 40-hour week folks, switch to 9-hour work days and allow employees to have every other Friday off or opt for a productive 35-hour work week.

7. Encourage employees to use company break time for meditation or “unplugging” time.   

8. Assess savings in terms of employee health, not insurance health costs (this is a big one). Health and business assessments can yield ways to improve company culture, organization health, and increased profits. (Check out W3RKWELL’s Health And Business assessment.

9. Plan for business locations near residential areas to encourage employees to walk or bike to work. If you are located in a metropolitan area, try walking meetings. According to research, getting outdoors increases creative thinking and reduces stress.

If you are currently an individual wanting to work for a health-centric company and cannot resign or persuade your current workplace to change, stay tuned for individual health hacks in the not-so health-centric workplace.  

W3RKWELL sincerely appreciates the time and input Jeffrey Pfeffer provided while developing this article. To learn more about the mounting research on the workplace and critical health effects, check out Dying for a Paycheck.



Conway, S. H., Pompeii, L. A., Roberts, R. E., Follis, J. L., & Gimeno, D. (2016). Dose-Response Relation between Work Hours and Cardiovascular Disease Risk: Findings from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine / American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 58(3), 221–226.

Other Sources:

Company-specific LinkedIn accounts: Whole Foods and Hydro Flask

Gianna Biscontini