Weekly Health Update:
Job and Workplace Stress
By, Robert A. Wascher, MD, FACS
The information in this column is intended for informational purposes only, and does not constitute medical advice or recommendations by the author. Please consult with your physician before making any lifestyle or medication changes, or if you have any other concerns regarding your health.
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JOB AND WORKPLACE STRESS
The global economy remains in the doldrums, unemployment remains at historically high levels around much of the world, and many people are feeling stressed in both their professional and personal lives. In today’s highly competitive job market, many employees are feeling increasingly vulnerable. There is also the perception among many workers that the poor job market has given employers the upper hand when it comes to the workplace environment. Employees are working longer hours (and often without traditional overtime pay, and the other economic incentives of the pre-recession era), taking more work home with them, and in general, are feeling a great deal more stress and insecurity than they experienced before the economy took a nose-dive in 2008.
Increased levels of chronic stress have been linked to a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, depression, obesity, increased drug use (including tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs), domestic abuse, interpersonal conflicts (at home and at work), and some cancers. With no end in sight to this second-worst economic downturn in modern history, the odds remain relatively high that many employees will continue to face increased demands in the workplace, increased difficulty in finding a reasonable work-home life balance, and will continue to feel vulnerable and anxious about the stability of their jobs. Many employers recognize that treating their employees fairly, and helping them to feel secure and appreciated in their jobs, is a “win-win” for everyone. Employees who are treated fairly, and who come to work each day knowing that their workplace environment is both supportive and free of unnecessary strife, are more efficient and more productive, and tend to take fewer days of sick leave. On the other hand, employees who feel that they are not being treated fairly, or that they are being taken advantage of, or that their jobs are at risk for reasons other than their performance, are less productive, more prone to interpersonal conflicts, and take more days of sick leave than employees who enjoy a healthy workplace climate. While some employers may see the current economic downturn as an opportunity to take advantage of their employees, and to exploit and mistreat their employees at a time when many workers already feel insecure and vulnerable, most employers understand that when their employees look forward to coming to work in a healthy, supportive, and fair workplace climate, both employer and employees are more likely to thrive.
Two newly published public health studies, which appear in the current issue of the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, offer both employees and employers important insights into creating a healthier, more productive, and more collegial work environment.
The first study was a long-term longitudinal, prospective occupational health study of 326 men and 338 women who originally enrolled in this research study in 1980 (while between the ages of 9 and 18 years). These children and adolescents were then followed for an impressive 27 years, until 2007. This study found that the now adult workers who had engaged in frequent leisure-time exercise, and effort-intensive sports, during childhood and adolescence were significantly less likely to complain of chronic workplace stress after they reached adulthood (i.e., when compared to employees who had rarely engaged in exercise or sports during their youth). Interestingly, after being tested for cardiovascular fitness during adulthood, this study found that a high level of physical fitness in adulthood only partially explained the apparent benefit of increased physical activity during late childhood and adolescence on perceived workplace stress. In addition to engaging in regular exercise and sports, having a “Type A” personality also appeared to be predictive of less workplace-associated stress. (People with “Type A” personality traits are highly goal-oriented, performance-oriented, “take charge” people, as opposed to people with so-called “Type B” traits. “Type B” people tend to feel more comfortable in delegating tasks, are less confrontational than Type A” folks, and also do not feel the sense of task-oriented urgency that their “Type A” peers constantly experience.)
While we probably cannot change our basic personality type, we can all increase our levels of physical activity, starting in childhood and continuing through adulthood, as a means of coping with the increased levels of chronic stress that many of us are feeling these days. (Importantly, there are many clinical research studies that have demonstrated a strong correlation between regular exercise and a decrease in the incidence of stress-related physical and mental illnesses.)
The findings of the second occupational health study should serve as a wake-up call to those employers that take advantage of hard economic times to exploit their workers, as well as those employers that permit an unhealthy or unfair work environment to persist. In this study, 2,763 randomly selected employees from the general population were interviewed and evaluated with respect to their workplace environment and their satisfaction with their jobs. A second group of 3,044 employees who appeared on their companies’ sick lists for more than 14 days, over a 2 month period, were similarly evaluated.
Among the women employees, a perceived unhealthy or unfair workplace environment was associated with an 80 percent increase in the likelihood that these female employees would end up on chronic sick lists. The impact of a toxic workplace environment on the male employees was even more profound, as men who complained of an unhealthy or unfair workplace climate were 174 percent more likely to chronically call in sick when compared to the men who were generally satisfied with their workplace environment and their jobs. (Interestingly, increased workload alone, in the absence of an unhealthy workplace environment, increased the risk of absenteeism among women, but not among men.)
In summary, these are tough times for many, many people. Most employers treat their employees in a fair and ethical manner, knowing that happy and secure employees are more efficient, more productive, more reliable, easier to get along with, and less likely to take excessive sick leave. Unfortunately, there are also employers who, sensing the insecurity of their employees during difficult economic times, exploit their employees through excessive and unfair workloads, and through their permissiveness in allowing unhealthy or unfair workplace environments to persist. For employees who must navigate these uncertain times, regular and frequent exercise can be a very important coping mechanism, and can pay important dividends in both one’s personal and professional lives (including a reduction in the risk of stress-related physical and mental ailments). For the minority of employers who take advantage of their anxious employees, or who turn a blind eye towards unhealthy or unfair workplace environments, such employers not only betray their responsibilities to their employees (and their responsibilities to society, in general), but their unethical treatment of their employees may also be detrimental to the overall success of these organizations, as disaffected employees often respond to such treatment with passive-aggressive work-avoidance behaviors, increased absenteeism, and in some cases, with litigation.
In time, we will emerge from this terrible global recession. When that happens, companies that have treated their employees fairly, and according to high ethical standards, during the worst of times will have an inherent advantage over those companies that took the low road. High levels of productivity, excellent employee morale and loyalty, and low levels of absenteeism and workforce turnover, will improve the competitiveness, stability, and productivity of the companies that treated their employees well during tough economic times (while the companies that did not treat their employees well are more likely to face increased employee turnover as the economy improves, as their disenfranchised employees seek better opportunities within an improving employment marketplace).
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Disclaimer: As always, my advice to readers is to seek the advice of your physicianbeforemaking any significant changes in medications, diet, or level of physical activity
Dr. Wascher is an oncologic surgeon, professor of surgery, cancer researcher, oncology consultant, and a widely published author
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Robert A. Wascher, MD, FACS
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