Performance-related pay linked to chronic stress, higher risk of substance abuse

ABERDEEN, Scotland — Working for bonuses could be a real negative for your health. Performance-related pay appears to have a connection to elevated stress levels and could potentially lead to substance abuse, new research suggests. A study spearheaded by a team at the University of Aberdeen Business School and the Institute of Applied Health Sciences discovered that workers receiving performance-related pay (PRP) are more susceptible to chronic stress, heart disease, high blood pressure, and mental health issues. These conditions could, in turn, lead to problems such as addiction.

PRP employees, notably men, exhibit higher levels of fibrinogen, a biomarker associated with chronic stress. Past studies examining the relationship between PRP and health have been inconclusive, primarily because they rely on self-reported data.

“Our study provides evidence for physiological wear and tear in PRP workers and is consistent with previous research showing they are more likely to have poor health, including self-reported mental health issues and cardiovascular health issues,” says professor Keith Bender, SIRE Chair in Economics, in a university release. “For the first time, we also demonstrate that PRP employees — particularly men — have higher blood pressure and elevated levels of fibrinogen, both closely associated with chronic stress.”

Man stressed over bills, money
The study finds that performance-related pay contracts were linked to poorer mental health and higher blood pressure, particularly in men.
(© fizkes –

The researchers performed a rigorous statistical analysis of data from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS), which includes medical information on stress physiological markers, such as blood pressure and biomarkers found in blood.

“Chronic stress in PRP employees may be due to the need to exert more effort at work, work under time or performance target pressure, or stress resulting from an uncertain income stream,” notes Dr. Daniel Powell, a co-author of the study from the University of Aberdeen’s Institute of Applied Health Science. “Regardless of the causes, chronic stress may exacerbate health issues by adding strain to physiological systems or leading to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol and drug use.”

The study’s findings offer the most unambiguous evidence thus far of the correlation between PRP and ill health.

“In essence, our results suggest that the use of PRP contracts may unintentionally affect employee health, impacting their well-being and long-term productivity. Given these findings, it’s crucial for companies to consider the potential impact on their employees and establish policies that support their well-being,” concludes Bender.

The findings are published in the journal Industrial Relations.

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South West News Service writer Sarah Ward contributed to this report.

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