Is Your Job Making You Sick?

Longer hours, tougher goals, less time with family, fear of unemployment, technology that keeps us on call 24-7 -- work pressure is creating an epidemic of stress-related job illness.
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The Demanding Workplace

Melissa Belkin needed a break -- badly. It was nearly noon, but the 30-year-old special education teacher knew she wouldn't be able to sit down for a civilized lunch. With her class of 17 learning-disabled third- and fourth-graders at Lucy V. Barnsley Elementary School in Rockville, Maryland, it was all she could do to keep her charges focused on a writing lesson. Belkin did manage to scarf down a low-carb yogurt as she graded a mound of test papers at her desk, but her actual lunch break was spent making arrangements for a class trip and calling other teachers to get donations for a retiring colleague's gift.

"I never have a quiet moment," says Belkin, a married mother of a 6-month-old girl. "I love my job, but by the time I leave, I'm ready to collapse."

As many Americans know, on-the-job stress is hardly limited to the blackboard jungle. More employees are trapped in a pressure cooker of long hours, crushing workloads, tight budgets, and demanding bosses who are also under the gun. Commutes are longer than ever before (the average slog has increased 16 percent since 1990). And the specter of unemployment still looms: Even though the recession officially ended three years ago, downsizings and layoffs are still routine.

"There's nothing you can do about the economy, and you can't complain too loudly about it to your boss," says Frank Kenna III, president of The Marlin Company, a workplace communications firm in North Haven, Connecticut. "People feel helpless."

And while we're not happy about toiling harder than before -- some 14 percent of American workers hold two or more jobs -- many fear that doing any less will jeopardize their positions. That chronic strain can take a heavy toll on body and soul, causing everything from higher absenteeism and depression to headaches and heart disease. Compounding the pressure is the growth in globalization.

Although the exodus of U.S. manufacturing jobs began decades ago, today's outsourcing of white-collar jobs threatens the livelihood of 14 million people, according to a recent study by the University of California.

"Everyone is anxious and uncertain," says Marcus Courtney, president of the Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, a Seattle-based union of high-tech employees. When the group recently surveyed more than 400 workers nationwide, it found that one in five had trained, or knew someone who'd trained, replacement workers from such countries as India, China, and Russia. The unsettling message to U.S. workers: No job is safe.

Continued on page 2:  New Technology


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