The Economic History Review

Status and mortality: Is there a Whitehall effect in the United States?

Volume 76 Issue 4
Home > The Economic History Review > Status and mortality: Is there a Whitehall effect in the United States?
Pages: 1191-1230Authors: Tom Nicholas
Published online: January 27, 2023DOI: 10.1111/ehr.13240

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The influential Whitehall studies found that top-ranking civil servants in Britain experienced lower mortality than civil servants below them in the organizational hierarchy due to differential exposure to workplace stress. I test for a Whitehall effect in the United States using a 1930 cohort of white-collar employees at a leading firm – General Electric (GE). All had access to a corporate health and welfare program during a critical period associated with the health transition. I measure status using position in the managerial hierarchy, attendance at prestigious management training camps and promotions, none of which is associated with a Whitehall-like rank-mortality gradient. Instead, senior managers and executives experienced a 3–5-year decrease in lifespan relative to those in lower levels, with the largest mortality penalty experienced by individuals in the second level of the hierarchy. I discuss generalizability and potential explanations for this reversal of the Whitehall phenomenon using additional data on the status and lifespan of top business executives and US senators.