Job Stress: The New Smoking

Job stress, like smoking, significantly increases the risk of heart disease and other illnesses. It also robs us of productivity and creativity. The good news is that like smoking, the impact of job stress can be limited.

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Job stress may have caught up with smoking as a significant risk to health.

How is job stress like smoking?

First, like smoking, job stress is a risk factor we can’t ignore. We all know that stress is a risk factor for heart disease and other illnesses. According to several studies, if your job is highly demanding and you have little control over how you do that job, your risk of heart attack and stroke increases by nearly one-third. For women, the risk increases by 40 percent. According to the United Nations International Labor Organization, on-the-job stress costs American businesses about $200 billion through turnover, lower productivity, absenteeism, worker’s compensation, and medical insurance. Occupational stress has been declared a global epidemic and may be the most important challenge facing American businesses. Controlling stress can significantly decrease the risk of disease while increasing productivity and creativity. Second, like smoking, job stress exposure can be limited or eliminated. Banning smoking in public places, including in the workplace, resulted in a 30 percent decrease in heart attacks. It is possible to similarly limit job stress. No, we may not be able to completely eliminate all stress at work, and in fact, some stress is motivational. Peak performance often involves some level of stress. The problem, however, arises when a high level of stress continues without an opportunity to return to normal. Working at a fever pitch for an extended time creates unhealthy patterns. Creating opportunities to reflect and refresh in between bouts of peak performance, employing coping mechanisms to manage stress, and designing work environments to limit job stress will decrease risk and increase results. Third, like smoking, secondhand job stress can be dangerous. A rise in your level of the stress hormone cortisol when observing someone else’s stress—what researchers call empathic stress—can significantly increase your risk of disease. Think about it. When your co-workers are stressed or in a bad mood, does it affect the way you feel? For most of us, it does. This secondhand stress is especially strong when you have a close relationship with the other person.

So what can we do?

Understand the stress reaction: The stress reaction in the body creates a hormone called cortisol, which can damage the heart when allowed to build to high levels. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands. It is essential in allowing the body to react to stressful situations, especially those requiring a “fight or flight” reaction. The body reacts to stress with a quick burst of energy, lowering sensitivity to pain and increasing attention and memory. One of the body’s more ingenious reactions to a threatening situation is to make blood clot faster, which will prevent bleeding to death from an injury. In this reaction the platelets become sticky, which is good in an emergency, but risky on a constant basis. Sticky blood is harder to pump, increasing blood pressure. Clotting more quickly increases the risk of stroke, heart attack, and migraine. Over time high levels of cortisol can also:

  • Cause weight gain
  • Raise risk of heart attack
  • Raise risk of stroke
  • Raise blood pressure
  • Lower the ability to heal or resist infection
  • Decrease bone density
  • Throw blood sugar out of balance
  • Lower brain function
  • Interfere with thyroid function

Once the crisis passes, the body relaxes and allows the cortisol to process out of the blood stream. A constant state of high stress, however, doesn’t allow the body to rid itself of the hormone. Process cortisol: The body eliminates cortisol when it is relaxed. Some simple ways to reduce levels are:

  • Sleep: The body needs between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night to properly eliminate cortisol.
  • Take deep breaths: Using deep-breathing exercises, guided imagery, yoga, or other stress-reduction techniques can reduce cortisol levels during the day.
  • Move around more: Getting 20–30 minutes of exercise can work wonders.
  • Take a vacation: Get away from sources of stress and give your body a chance to regenerate and be refreshed.

Focus on controlling response: Choosing how to respond to potentially stressful situations can reduce the cortisol spike in the first place. Just acknowledging a stressful situation may reduce the body’s reaction to it. Research indicates that people who curse in reaction to an injury or stressful situation can reduce pain and cause a rapid release of stress hormones. A quick initial response followed by action may be a good solution. A “slow burn” of building stress over time can be very dangerous. Remember the “because”: Long periods of high stress can be particularly dangerous. Some jobs are by nature stressful. In those cases, it can be helpful to remind yourself why it is you endure a stressful situation. You endure job stress because:

  • It creates advancement opportunities.
  • It allows you to vacation, raise children, or save for something desirable.
  • It brings value to the community.
  • It pays the bills.

Managing job stress is essential to maintaining health and productivity. After working with high performers to improve heart health and manage stress for more than a decade, however, I discovered there isn’t enough data about the specifics of the job stress environment and how it affects men and women differently. I’ve been working to understand how changing the stress environment at work could make a difference. This led me to embark on a multiphase research project to explore this important topic. The study is currently in the first phase, collecting data about job stress. A broad base of responses from all ages, genders, and job categories is needed.

How can you help?

Please take three minutes to complete this simple survey about job stress. The initial results have been fascinating, and I look forward to sharing more information on job stress in the future.

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