Is your job making you sick?

Zoomer | July 14th, 2011

Clearly, stress is a part of life and certainly a part of the workplace. And it’s not entirely bad: at times stress can provide quick bursts of energy as well as enhanced memory, motivation and performance.

But excessive, long-term stress is something entirely different. Not only can it hinder job performance and morale, but it can make you sick… really sick.

In fact, chronically stressed workers are 68 per cent more likely to develop heart disease, according to a new British study. Researchers found that stressed workers face a significantly higher risk of dying of heart disease, suffering a non-fatal heart attack or developing angina.

The 12-year old study, which was published in the European Heart Journal, looked at more than 10,000 British government workers in white-collar jobs.

The workers, most of whom were 35-55 years old at the start of the study, received regular medical checkups. They also reported on various lifestyle habits such as drinking alcohol, smoking, diet and physical activity. During this time, participants were also asked to rate their job stress.

The most stressed workers were found to have jobs with high pressure but little control, as well as bad bosses and unsupportive colleagues.

“This is the first large-scale population study looking at the effects of stress measured from everyday working life on heart disease,” study leader Tarani Chandola, of University College London, told Reuters. “One of the problems is people have been skeptical whether work stress really affects a person biologically.”

Both behavior and biological changes likely explain why stress at work causes heart disease, Chandola said. For example, stressed workers are more likely to eat unhealthy food, smoke, and not exercise — all behaviors linked to heart disease.

But stressed workers also had lowered heart rate variability which is a sign of a poorly-functioning weak heart, as well as higher-than-normal levels of cortisol, a “stress” hormone that produces a burst of energy for a fight-or-flight response.

Higher and more prolonged levels of cortisol in the bloodstream – like those associated with chronic stress – have been linked to a number of health problems, including:
• Impaired cognitive performance
• Suppressed thyroid function
• Blood sugar imbalances such as hyperglycemia
• Decreased bone density and muscle tissue
• Higher blood pressure
• Lowered immunity
• Increased abdominal fat which is associated with increased risk for heart attacks, strokes, the development of, higher levels of “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower levels of “good” cholesterol (HDL).

More stressed workers
Job-related stress is on the rise. A recent poll by the American Psychological Association found that one-third of the respondents are living with extreme stress.

The most commonly cited source? Work. A whopping 74 per cent of respondents said their jobs caused their stress, up from 59 per cent the previous year.

Co-workers may be a part of the problem. Negative interpersonal relationships with colleagues – either with passive-aggressive co-workers or disgruntled bosses – have a huge impact on worker anxiety and stress, experts say.

New research by University of Manitoba’s M. Sandy Hershcovis and Julian Barling, of Queen’s University in Ontario, found that workplace bullying is actually more harmful to employees than sexual harassment.

And in the United States, an estimated 37 per cent of workers, or about 54 million people, have been bullied at the office, or repeatedly mistreated in a health-harming way, according to a 2007 Zogby International survey.

Ways to reduce stress
While you may not always be able to change your work environment, there are steps you can take to reduce your stress. The Canadian Mental Health Association offers these 5 simple tips:

1. Try to see the humour in a situation. Laughing is one of the easiest and best ways to reduce stress.

2. Learn relaxation techniques, such as pausing for several deep breaths throughout the day or taking regular stretch breaks.

3. Take charge of your situation by taking 10 minutes at the beginning of each day to prioritize and organize your day.

4. Be honest with your colleagues, but be constructive and make practical suggestions.

5. Be realistic about what you can change.

For more tips on how to reduce job-related stress, click here.

Sources: American Psychological Association; Canadian Mental Health Association; Health’s Disease and Condition

Work stress and coronary heart disease: what are the mechanisms?

Photo © Killer

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