The Health Benefits of Promotion

UK civil servants in departments with high rates of promotion are approximately 20% less likely to develop heart disease than their counterparts in departments with low rates of promotion. That is the central finding of research by Professors Michael Anderson and Michael Marmot, published in the June 2012 issue of the Economic Journal.

Their study, which tracks the employment histories and health outcomes of 4,700 civil servants in the London area, reveals that the department you work in can significantly affect your chances of developing heart disease. The findings reinforce a growing body of research suggesting that upward mobility and socio-economic status have important effects on physical health.

Numerous studies have documented the positive correlation between socio-economic status and health, but establishing cause and effect has proved difficult. Does higher income generate better health or are healthier people able to earn more income? Answering this question requires variation in socio-economic status that is not the result of differences in health.

The study addresses this challenge by examining the relationship between promotions and health across civil service departments. The number of promotions within a department is typically determined by funding constraints and past hiring decisions. Differences in health across departments are thus likely to be a result of different promotion rates rather than a cause of different promotion rates.

The study tracks the London-based civil servants’ careers and health over the 15-year period from 1985 to 1999. Using these data, it finds that civil servants in departments with high promotion rates are significantly less likely to develop heart disease than civil servants in departments with low promotion rates.

Doubling the departmental promotion rate decreases the number of new heart disease cases by approximately 20%. These differences persist even when controlling for the initial prevalence of heart disease, the grade level at which a civil servant joined the service and differences in working environments across departments.

The study contributes to a growing literature on the potential health effects of promotions, awards and status. Past studies have found that Oscar winners outlive runners-up, Nobel laureates outlive nominees who do not win and baseball players who reach the Hall of Fame outlive those who fall just short.

A rich picture of the importance of social status in determining physical health is emerging from this strand of research. This new study builds on that literature and highlights the possibility that promotions and rankings may affect the health not just of famous actors, scientists and athletes but of ordinary workers too.

‘The Effects of Promotions on Heart Disease: Evidence from Whitehall’ by Michael Anderson and Michael Marmot is published in the June 2012 issue of the Economic Journal. 

Michael Anderson

assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at University of California

Michael Marmot

professor of epidemiology and public health at University College London

Media Coverage

Huffington Post Getting A Promotion At Work ‘Slashes Heart Disease Risk’

The Telegraph Promotion ‘good for the heart’