Lab rats can teach us a lot about the rat race at the office.


Dr. Lydia TemoshokI had the great privilege of talking with eminent psychoneuroimmunologist Dr. Lydia Temoshok last night in Reston, at a Chez Nous event. Dr. Temoshok has been a pioneer in the scientific study of stress on our immune systems and its impact on the progress of diseases, especially HIV/AIDS.

She reviewed for us the classic result published in Science in 1983. Three groups of rats were studied. One group was subjected to shocks administered from the floor of their cage but they also had a lever that, when pressed by a rat, would stop the shock. A separate group felt exactly the same shocks as the first group but had no relief lever to press. The third group of rats had no shocks. The rats subjected to uncontrollable shocks suffered suppressed immune systems. The rats subjected to shocks with some control over their environmental stress, group one, not only did better than the rats without control but–by at least one measure–had a better immune response than the control group of rats with no shocks at all. The conclusions of the study have been repeated and extended by many other experiments, including some that showed this change in immune system response affected the speed at which cancer tumors grew.

I asked Dr. Temoshok if it was sensible to compare these conclusions with the famous Whitehall Studies of British civil servants. These long-term studies of government employees demonstrated clearly that the higher the person was in the organization’s hierarchy the healthier they were by many measures, particularly cardiovascular disease (a major killer in our culture). The Whitehall studies identified decision-making authority and work autonomy as key factors for better health. She enthusiastically supported the parallels.

It is possible to design workplaces where more people have the experience of control and thereby healthier lives. See my article here on companies with self-directed teams.