Is Your Job Making You Sick?
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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.

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.

New Technology

For many Americans, new technology has created an array of electronic devices that effectively tether us to our jobs round the clock. Few gadgets have better managed to do this than BlackBerries -- those wireless, handheld computers that more than a million workaholic professionals use to check their e-mail anywhere -- bathrooms, restaurants, theaters -- and anytime, whether it's lunch, dinner, or after the kids are put to bed.

"We call them 'crack berries' because they're so addictive," says Elizabeth Weber, 47, who works for BISYS Insurance Services in Bethesda, Maryland. Breaking the habit has been hard. "When our family visited Epcot Center last April, my 16-year-old threatened to throw my BlackBerry into a lake," Weber recalls. "She kept telling me, 'Mom, you're supposed to be on vacation!'"

Credit Weber for actually taking one. These days, a quarter of Americans don't even use their full vacation leave -- even though the U.S. average of 10 days a year is downright stingy compared with countries such as Italy and France (25 to 30 days).

Research Shows...

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."

Taking Work Home

Undoubtedly, the second shift does increase the burdens that working mothers face. When Jackie Vinick, 35, finishes a long day as marketing manager for Friends of the National Zoo, in Washington, D.C., she's the one who makes the hour-long commute to pick up daughters Jamie, 6, and Gaby, 4, from school, feeds them dinner, and bathes them before her attorney husband, Steve, comes home at 8 p.m.

"I'm frazzled trying to do everything for everyone, and I occasionally lose it and yell at him and the kids," she says. Asked if she ever gets time to do something for herself, she shrugs and smiles weakly.

Job stress that creeps into domestic life can have devastating effects. In a 2002 study of 726 workers by GLS Consulting of Boston, 40 percent said their job stress put a strain on their marriages. Researchers specifically cited the adverse effects of the kicking-the-dog syndrome, when frustration at work carries over to home life, and people take it out on their loved ones.

"If you bark at your kids, you'd better apologize and explain that it's because of work," advises Carol Kauffman, PhD, a psychologist and instructor at Harvard Medical School. "Your job may not be around in 10 or 20 years, but your family will."

Staying Sane at Work

To stay sane in the workplace, many Americans are pursuing a range of stress-management strategies, both old and New Age. The nationwide boom in walking, yoga, Pilates, and aromatherapy reflects a growing need to shake off tension.

 

Jody Mahr, a 49-year-old senior vice president in the credit risk management department at Sovereign Bank, likes to get away from her desk to frequent lunchtime classical-music concerts at churches near her Boston office. Not only are these breaks important stress reducers for her, "it's good just to get out of the business environment for an hour," she says.

Most important, experts advise companies to address the root problems causing stress. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) encourages brainstorming sessions with workers, managers, and labor representatives to identify sources of stress and to develop preventive measures to bring them under control. Among their prescriptions: Recognize workers for good performance, offer opportunities for professional development, involve workers in management decisions, develop safe and pleasant working conditions, and create family-friendly policies.

"You need a serious commitment from an employer to have the biggest impact in reducing stress," says NIOSH public affairs officer Fred Blosser.

But if leaner staffs and increased workloads are unavoidable, Mitchell Lee Marks, PhD, author of Charging Back Up the Hill: Workplace Recovery After Mergers, Acquisitions, and Downsizings (Jossey-Bass, 2003), advises corporate bosses to be attentive to the emotional and physical needs of the workers still on the job.

He recently hosted what he called a "venting meeting" for a California financial services company that had recently downsized 20 percent of its workforce. After separating the workers and their managers, he invited employees to openly gripe about their crushing workloads. Then he brought in the managers to hear sanitized summaries of the complaints, and discuss how they could modify company priorities to more effectively manage each staff member's workload and stress. The outcome: Workers were more content and productive, and some of them were later rewarded with bonuses for their perseverance in tough times.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, September 2004.

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