Workplace stress: is your job killing you?

In Japan, where there’s no legal limit on working hours, there’s an accepted phenomenon called ‘karoshi’, which translates to ‘death by overwork’. The Japanese government compensates families who have lost loved ones due to employment-related exhaustion or suicide. According to Labour Ministry data, claims for compensation for karoshi rose to a record high of 1,456 in the year ending March 2015, however it’s believed the true figures could be 10 times higher than official records.

Of course it’s common for workers to complain that their job is killing them, or that they’re working themselves to death, but often it’s said in hyperbole. While correlations have been drawn between workplace stress and stroke, for example, other factors such as sleep deprivation can also come into play, and it’s been tricky to know for sure whether stressful jobs can directly cause our health to deteriorate. However over the past year or so, there’s emerged a growing bank of research to show that our jobs could actually be killing us.

The need for autonomy

A recent study by Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business found that those working in high stress jobs with little autonomy are more likely to die sooner than those who have more control over and balance in their work. The longitudinal study followed 10,000 people who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. Participants were interviewed about their education, occupation and emotional experiences at various stages throughout their lives. Of the initial 10,000, 2,363 participants had not yet retired by 2004 (at the age of 65), and they were interviewed further about their job pressures. When researchers spoke to this group again in 2011, they found that those who had spent their lives working in stressful environments with little control were 15.4% more likely to have died (between the ages of 65 and 72). At the same time, those who spent their careers with high levels of autonomy as well as high job demands were associated with a 34% decrease in the likelihood of death, compared with low-demand jobs.

The study’s lead author, Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, wrote in a statement: “These findings suggest that stressful jobs have clear negative consequences for employee health when paired with low freedom in decision making, while stressful jobs can actually be beneficial to employee health if also paired with freedom in decision making.”

The impact of pressure

A Danish study recently considered the impact sudden work pressures can have upon health. Economists at Purdue and the University of Copenhagen looked at Danish manufacturing companies where overseas sales increased unexpectedly over a 10 year period, between 1996 and 2006. At businesses where exports spiked, largely due to changes in foreign demand or transportation costs, staff felt suddenly under pressure to be more productive, and handle a much bigger workload.

Researchers found that women at companies where there was an export boom were far more likely to be treated for severe depression, and more likely to take prescription medication for heart attack or stroke. For both men and women, there was also an increase in severe on-the-job injuries.

While the conditions were extreme, researchers found a strong correlation between the increase in job pressure and the prevalence of health issues and accidents. The health effect was also found to be in direct proportion to how much pressure the company faced. If a firm’s exports rose by 10% for example, female employees were about 2.5% more likely to be treated for severe depression, and 7.7% more likely to take heart attack or stroke drugs. Furthermore, the most exceptionally busy firms (in the top 25%) saw a 28% increase in severe work-related injuries, which equates to about one extra-serious injury per 1,000 workers. Interestingly, women were more affected than men within the study, but men may have avoided medical or drug-based intervention.

What should you do?

Our bodies are the biggest indicator of when we’re heading towards a work situation which is unhealthy for us. It can often feel easiest to ignore the warning signs, but the risks of a toxic job are not to be underestimated. You may already be experiencing some health problems, but even if you’re not, don’t put off taking these positive steps towards some resolution…

Take stock: a helpful first step can be to write a list of the aspects of your job that cause you the most stress or anxiety. Be as specific as you can. Maybe it’s a certain client that causes you the most pain, a boss who likes to micromanage, the pressure of tight deadlines, long office hours or your extended commute. Be brutally honest with yourself, even if some points are hard to acknowledge.

Get enough sleep: insomnia and sleep deprivation are often closely connected with work-related stress, and can result in serious health problems, as well as significant cognitive impairment. Harvard researchers suggest insomnia results in the loss of 11 days of work per year, which equates to $63.2 billion in annual costs. If your job has been causing you to lose sleep on a regular basis, you need sleep before you make any big decisions. Take the time out that you need to sleep.

Unplug: ‘Technostress’ is an important and growing issue, and the impact of 24/7 devices and connectivity is yet to be fully understood. If you’ve fallen into the habit of never turning off your work email, for example, be more strict with yourself about unplugging at the end of the working day.

Go back to your list: think seriously about what you can change, delegate, or stop doing entirely. Don’t worry about being judged as the alternative of carrying on regardless is far more serious. While it’s impossible to offload everything, it will be a relief to make a few small changes.

Prioritise autonomy: “High-demand, low-control [jobs] tend to cause a great deal of psychological strain”, says Peter L. Schnall, MD, an occupational stress expert at the University of California at Irvine. While it can be tricky to decrease workload, it can be easier to find ways to be more involved in decision-making at work, and seek out greater autonomy, which in turn could lower your stress.

Be bold: if your job is killing you, there’s no question that big changes are needed. Once you’ve gone through the above process, you may feel there’s potential to talk to your boss and see if your role can be modified or certain responsibilities offloaded for the short term, with the aim to remove your biggest sources of stress. If this isn’t possible, this is where your job hunt or new career ambition begin…

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