Is Your Job Making You Sick?
Physiologically, stress signals the brain to release hormones that sharpen the senses, quicken the pulse, and tense the muscles. Occasional and short-term episodes of stress pose little risk, but when it's persistent, the body is in a constant state of agitation, which can cause physical and psychological damage. Research over the past 20 years has shown a link between job stress and headaches, ulcers, sleep disturbances, musculoskeletal disorders, and heart disease.
A study of nearly 5,900 Department of Energy (DOE) workers by Boston University's School of Public Health between 1995 and 2000 -- a period of downsizing at the agency -- found that those who survived the cutbacks were more likely than the general population to experience sadness and anger. Fearful for their jobs, some DOE employees became more competitive and were far more likely to distrust their coworkers. Many also tried to cope by abusing alcohol or using antidepressants.
One of the early warning signs of stress is physical and mental fatigue. Some 49 percent of workers report that they are so stressed on the job that they often feel incapacitated, according to a 2004 survey of 500 workers by ComPsych, a Chicago-based employee-assistance provider. More than a third say they lose an hour a day of productivity because they have difficulty concentrating; 44 percent admit to showing up for work up to four days a year too stressed to be effective.
Men and women experience job stress differently. In a 2001 survey of 1,003 workers by the Families and Work Institute (FWI), only 25 percent of men complained about being overwhelmed, compared with 31 percent of women. Analysts blamed the gender gap on the so-called second shift, the extra time women spent on home chores and childcare, but further research revealed that working women are more stressed because they're typically interrupted more on the job than men -- by colleagues and supervisors, by children and the babysitter. "Women aren't as protective of their time," says FWI president Ellen Galinsky. "They're too accommodating."