Unfair treatment worsens physical, mental health

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - People who report a sense of being unfairly treated face a greater risk of suffering a heart attack, and are in worse overall physical and mental health, researchers from the UK and Finland report.

The findings underscore that health is a societal issue as well as an individual concern, Dr. Roberto De Vogli of University College London, the study’s lead author, told Reuters Health. “Addressing injustice in the social environment in society can be a way to promote health and to reduce health problems, especially among people in lower socioeconomic positions,” he said in an interview.

Previous research has linked unfair treatment at work to risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure, while men working in settings where organizational justice is high face a lower heart disease risk, De Vogli and his team note in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

To understand how perceptions of unfair treatment both within and outside the work environment might affect health, the researchers followed 8,298 London civil service workers for an average of about 11 years.

After the investigators adjusted the data for the affects of heart disease risk factors, such as age, gender and other relevant factors, they found people who reported higher levels of unfair treatment at the study’s outset were 55 percent more likely to have a heart attack, to have developed heart disease, or to have chest pain during the follow-up period. They were also 46 percent more likely to report poor physical health and at 54 percent increased risk of poor mental health.

The researchers also found that the lower a worker ranked on the totem pole of the civil service, the more likely he or she was to report being treated unfairly.

There are a number of pathways by which unfair treatment could contribute to poor health, De Vogli noted. Such treatment could make a person more hostile and angry, and also increase the risk of depression. People may also choose unhealthy ways to cope with the stress of unfair treatment, such as smoking cigarettes or drinking excessively, he added.

“Consistent with the hypothesis suggesting that unfairness is a fundamental aspect of human behavior, social relations, and the organization of society, the frequency with which people experience unfairness may influence their physical and mental health,” De Vogli and his colleagues conclude.

SOURCE: Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, June 2007.