Stress at work taking big toll
September 7, 2004
The passing of the Labor Day holiday this year coincided with two new noteworthy articles looking at how “labor” is affecting us in America.
The New York Times is publishing a series of articles about how the demands for longer and more intense work hours are affecting American workers. And, the American Psychological Association recently reported on a compilation of nearly 300 studies of research over a 40-year period, examining the association between stress and physical health.
The bottom line is employees are working longer and more demanding hours and the climate of our work places is more stressful than it has ever been. The stress this causes is impacting the mental and physical health of many workers.
Having worked in the mental health field for 15 years, I notice that more and more people talk about how their work is affecting them. Several months ago I suggested to a client, a professional businesswoman, that perhaps her long work hours were affecting her anxiety. She replied, “Everyone works 50-plus hours a week; I’m not working harder than anyone else.” Perhaps she was right.
Since the 1960s, various entities have studied the relationship between work and physical and mental health. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health is a branch of the government actively involved in research of this nature. At times they have collaborated with the American Psychological Association, which has also studied this area for several decades.
Within the field of psychology, occupational psychology combines the studies of business and psychology. And, at least a dozen large corporations hire researchers to conduct ongoing analyses of their employees’ physical and emotional well-being. What are they finding?
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The working world in America has become more tenuous. Downsizing, outsourcing, rapid business expansions in some markets and an increase in business closings in others, demands for increased productivity, and rapidly rising health care costs, have made workers feel desperate to hold onto their jobs, producing what some researchers have called “the work ethic of fear.”
Thirty percent of workers are “often” or “always” stressed at work. Sixty-two percent of workers state that in the last six months their work load has increased, and 53 percent say their work leaves them “overtired and overwhelmed,” according to research reported by the New York Times.
The American Institute of Stress in New York estimates that $300 billion are spent each year on health care as the result of workplace stress. Workplace stress also translates into increasing sick days, hospitalizations, higher incidents of heart attacks, and a variety of other emotional and physical ailments.
In particular, workers with high levels of ongoing stress, workers with any kind of previous health problems, and workers over 50 years of age, are at the most risk for developing mental or physical health problems.
The nature of work environments has become tenser as well. Older employees frequently reported to interviewers that younger employees seem to love the “drama” of shortened deadlines, demands to work into the evenings, and crisis phone calls at home.
Some employees noted that they were “addicted” to work and that the rewards of their work became greater than the rewards of home life so, “home became work, and work became home.” The problem is that these employees tend to stand out as exemplary, forcing co-workers to try to produce at the same level.
It has long been known that high or chronic stress is associated with higher levels of cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, anxiety and depression. The human body is designed to deal with normal levels of tension with the “fight or flight response” which is a protective system in which our body responds to stress. When the body’s fight or flight response has been triggered too many times, we physically and emotionally burn out.
Similarly, short-term stress can actually cause our immune system to “rev up,” protecting us from illness and disease. But, ongoing stress causes too much wear and tear, whittling the immune system down, leading to increased vulnerability to various sicknesses and diseases. Occupational psychologists have long noted that increased work hours are associated with higher levels of anxiety, tension, and depression. Ironically, the more anxious or depressed workers become, the less efficiently their brains process information. Hence, these workers become less proficient employees, needing to work more hours to complete their work; quite a vicious cycle.
Forecasting into the future, something dramatic will have to change in our work environments. However, for now, most people are desperate to hold onto their jobs and are struggling to manage the demands of work with the demands of home. Experts suggest that workers control what they can; a sense of control is associated with fewer symptoms of physical and emotional stress. These suggestions include not working more than you have too, getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods, exercising, avoiding cigarettes and alcohol, and talking to supportive people. If you are an employer or employee manager, find ways to lessen your employees’ stress.
In one of the studies, a businesswomen, previously making a six-figure salary, developed a life-threatening illness. She called it “a kind of gift” because it led her to quit her job and stop and slow down. She used her savings to start a mentoring program and currently works part-time managing it.
We don’t all have this luxury. Nonetheless, it is important to keep work as manageable as possible and to be aware of the possible toll it is taking on our mental and physical health.
And, consider gaining control in small increments – take 15 minutes a day for something you enjoy – walking through a garden, reading a book, or playing with your children. Doing small things, regularly, may help you find that you’re feeling calmer and more in control. Keep in mind that small changes can pave the way for dramatic improvements.
Lisa Keating, Ph.D., is a Carson City clinical psychologist.