New studies being reported almost daily strengthen the association between psychological stress in general, and stress at work in particular, with poor health.
Although a severe mental stress level at work, similar to a televised high–drama soccer game or the death of a loved one, could lead to cardiovascular disease (CVD) events, such as a heart attack, it is more likely that chronic high job demands, low job control, job dissatisfaction, over–commitment and burnout (to list only the most commonly studied factors), will negatively impact our health. This type of chronic high stress in the workplace is not only associated with heart disease, the number one killer worldwide, but also with higher blood pressure, stroke, weakened immune system functions, increased inflammation and depression. In an international study conducted in 52 countries with 11,000 workers, heart disease was directly related to work stress independent of region, ethnic background, or gender. In fact, psychological distress was shown to be a potent predictor of the incidence of heart attack, comparable to smoking, and more significant than diabetes, hypertension and obesity! Recent studies also suggest an approximately 40 percent excess risk of heart disease in employees working long hours.
Unmanaged psychological stress can negatively affect health directly through changes in the autonomic (not under our voluntary control) nervous system and hormonal changes, or indirectly by causing us to engage in destructive behaviors such as smoking, poor diet, and inactivity. The results of a recent long–term observational study from Germany provide support for a direct connection. In this study 1,000 healthy workers were followed for more than 12 years. Those who experienced stress at work had increased inflammation parameters in their blood and twice the risk of cardiovascular disease. In another study, elderly participants who had the highest level of cortisol, a stress–associated hormone, were almost three times as likely to have an increased risk of CVD and type 2 diabetes. That means that too much stress at work increases our risk of CVD as much as standard risk factors like hypertension, abdominal obesity, or high cholesterol.
And believe it or not, there’s more: A recent study from Sweden shows a damaging indirect effect of job–related stress. Researchers collected data on more than 170,000 participants from 14 studies in 8 European countries. Employees with high–strain jobs were 26 percent more likely to be physically inactive than employees in low–strain jobs. When the researchers looked at only the physically active participants, those with high–strain jobs were 21 percent more likely of becoming physically inactive during 2 to 9 years of follow–up.
Severe stress is already affecting more than one third of Americans. When you consider that employees now have the added stress of corporate downsizing and outsourcing, it is clear that serious consideration needs to be given to widely implementing stress management programs. Simply prescribing more and more antidepressants is not the answer. Here’s one thing that will work: a daily meditation practice. If you are not regular with your practice or you have never tried meditation, now may be the right time to start. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress, improve mood, and enhance quality of life. You can learn meditation from teachers at our Center for Lifestyle Medicine
or through our online stress management program, Stress Free Now (SFN)
. In a recent study of SFN, participants who reported a high level of job-related stress when starting experienced significant improvements after completing the 8-week program, including reduced perception of stress, improved mindfulness and greater vitality. Is there any employer who would not want to have a calmer, happier and healthier work force?