Quantifying the Health Threats of Job Stress

The body’s stress response is good for you when you’re running from a bear in the wilderness, but bad for you at other times when the pounding heart and other physiological components of the stress response portend nothing you can really do anything constructive about.  Often, that occurs on the job. According to a new study, workplace stress might be as bad for you as secondhand smoke.

As reported by MedicalNewsToday.com, the research conducted by Harvard Business School and Stanford University analyzed data from 228 studies (known as a meta-analysis) on job-related pressure, and published their results in a new journal from the Behavioral Science & Policy Association.

The researchers determined that high job demands boosted the chances of a worker getting a doctor-diagnosed illness by 35%. Working long hours boosted the risk of early death by nearly 20%.

The researchers reviewed several work stressors, including job insecurity, family-work conflict, and long work hours, and their effect on four health outcomes — the presence of a diagnosed medical condition, self-reported poor physical health, self-reported poor mental health and mortality.

The most health-threatening stressor was worry over the possibility of losing a job, which made workers 50% more likely to experience poor health.

Standard job stressors were compared with workers’ exposure to secondhand smoke, which is an acknowledged carcinogen. That reality has caused smoking to be banned widely in public places, including workplaces. The researchers wrote, “The results of our meta-analysis show that workplace stressors generally increased the odds of poor health outcomes to approximately the same extend as exposure to secondhand smoke.”

According to CNN, study co-author Joel Goh, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, said he hoped the study would prompt companies to reflect on how their management might alter certain practices in order to reduce stress and improve employee health; that they would understand how a work culture that demands faster work or longer hours might not result in the increased productivity management assumes would occur, but instead promotes illness.

We have to ask: Is this news? Do we really need tons of studies to prove that when you place unreasonable physical and psychological demands on people they get sick?

Goh hopes that such an impressive analysis would result in widespread changes in job expectations, including “limiting working hours, reducing shift work and unpredictable working hours, and encouraging flexible work arrangements that help employees to achieve a better balance between their work life and their family life.”

The CNN story offered tips for people who might be at risk for health problems related to their work.

  • Keep a work stress journal. Record instances when you feel stressed to identify the actual source of the problem. If it was during a conversation with a co-worker, for example, maybe the stress isn’t inherent in the job, but with the relationship, which might require dealing with the person differently.
  • Do a reality check. Is your job is truly in jeopardy, or are you inventing the threat? Get perspective, if necessary, from other employees.
  • Determine if you really like your work. People who love what they do handle stress better than those who don’t. If you don’t like what you do most of the time (no one loves everything about their job), it’s time to seek employment elsewhere.
  • Think through the worst-case scenario. If you’re afraid you’re going to lose your job, plan your response if it should happen. Make sure your resume is current. Contact former colleagues to see if they or their employers are hiring. Cultivate your professional network.
  • Set limits with your boss. If your supervisor expects you regularly to work 10-hour days and you don’t find that acceptable, explain to him or her that you can’t manage those long hours on a routine basis. Then explain everything you do accomplish in your eight- or nine-hour day. In other words, change the focus from a time-orientation to a project orientation.
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