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Stress at Work Is as Bad for You as Secondhand Smoke

A little bit of stress every now and then can be good for you. It keeps the brain alert and fortifies the immune system. Too much stress, on the other hand, can be a killer. A shocking new study from Stanford University and the Harvard Business School finds that stress on the job can damage one’s health just as much as exposure to secondhand smoke.

The research team, which examined more than 200 previous studies on workplace stress, found that job pressures increased the chances of getting sick by 35%, while long work hours increased the risk of premature death by 20%. But by far the biggest stressor was the fear of losing a job, which increased the odds of having poor health by 50%.

“When you think about how much time individuals typically spend at work, it's not that surprising,” study co-author Joel Goh, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, told CNN.

Additionally, work-family conflicts more than doubled the odds that employees would report mental health problems and upped the risk of physical ailments by more than 90%. The study also found that low organizational justice (defined as “a lack of perceived fairness in the organization”) increased the odds of an employee having a physician-diagnosed illness by about 50%.

Overall, the researchers found that workplace stress can have a negative effect on your health that is similar to or even greater than breathing in secondhand smoke.

‘Catching’ Stress From Colleagues

But even if you’re happy being at work, you’re not immune to the ripple effect of chronic stress. Researchers from UC Riverside found that if someone in your sight line is anxious and irritable, there’s a high likelihood you’ll experience those same emotions.

That’s because emotions, both positive and negative, are “sticky,” replicating like viruses among people who work together. This phenomenon — known as “emotional contagion” — is due to our mirror neutrons, the tiny parts of the brain that allow us to understand what others are feeling. You yawn, I yawn. You fold your arms across your chest and I’m programmed to do the same.

Interestingly, negative emotions are likely more contagious than positive ones. People typically react more strongly to pain and sadness than to joy and serenity, said John T. Cacioppo, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and coauthor of Emotional Contagion, in an interview with Oprah Magazine. The mechanism that underlies this is our selfish desire to stay alive, otherwise known as the survival instinct. When we’re staring danger in the face, the fight-or-flight instinct (explained is this short video, which the University of Texas warns is “not for the faint of heart”) protects us from the proverbial saber-toothed tiger hiding behind the bush. While positive things may have helped the caveman survive, negative ones could kill him. Consequently, “when both good and bad are very strong, the bad trumps,” Cacioppo says.

Goh and his colleagues said they hope that the study will open up discussions about how employers can implement policies that reduce worker stress. They suggest “possible job redesigns [that] could involve limiting working hours, reducing shift work and unpredictable working hours, and encouraging flexible work arrangements that help employees achieve a better balance between their work life and their family life.”

The federal government could do its part, they said, by offering employers tax incentives for creating job arrangements that support work-family balance and thereby minimize work-family conflict or, as in many European countries, incentives that would encourage more employment continuity and fewer layoffs.

How to Get Your Employer to Step Up

If you need some help getting your boss on board with the idea of instituting changes that foster a low-stress work environment, here are a few steps to get you started:

  • Survey your colleagues: Find out what changes would benefit them most. If you can show that a lot of people are interested in a particular policy change, management will be more inclined to consider the request. If mandatory overtime is causing stress in the workplace, you may be able to persuade your employer to move to a voluntary system, or, at the very least, allow employees to sign up for overtime in advance. Perhaps there’s a lot of support for job-sharing or telecommuting. Volunteer to lead a committee that will present the ideas to management.
  • Emphasize the payoff to your employer: For example, you might point out that by eliminating their commutes, employees could devote an extra hour or two every day to their work. Start small, suggesting that only a few employees work just a few days outside the office. Many studies have found that flexible policies such as telecommuting enhance productivity, reduce absenteeism, cut costs and increase profits. An article in Business Week cites a number of companies where a move to family-friendly policies resulted in increased efficiency and a stronger bottom line.
  • Ask for a trial run: Suggest a trial period of a month or two and then agree to discuss how the policy changes are impacting your work and the work of the team. This makes it more difficult for the boss to say no.

Taking Care of Yourself

While you’re waiting for your boss to see the light, focus on making work healthier for you. Here are a few tips to find your Zen at work:

  • Get moving: Regular exercise is a proven stress reliever. Aim for 30 minutes of exercise every day. If it’s easier to fit into your schedule, break up the activity into two or three shorter segments.
  • Take a lunch break: Scarfing down a sandwich at your desk isn’t a lunch break. Taking a proper break from our work gives us a chance to relax and refocus, allowing for better production toward the end of the day. Kimberly Elsbach, a management professor at UC Davis who studies the psychology of the workplace, says getting out for some air increases creativity. “We know that creativity and innovation happen when people change their environment, and especially when they expose themselves to a nature-like environment,” Elsbach “Staying inside, in the same location, is really detrimental to creative thinking … you don’t actually need to go eat, you just need to get out.”
  • Talk to someone who will listen attentively: One of the best remedies for stress is talking. Sharing problems face-to-face with a pal can help calm your nerves and relieve tension. The other person doesn’t have to “fix” your problems, but may be able to put them into perspective or give you a new way to think about them.
  • Delegate responsibility:If you’re feeling swamped at work, why not let other people help? Let go of the desire to control every little step. Otherwise, at some point, you will be unable to manage the workload and put yourself at risk of breaking down both physically and mentally. And when it comes to delegating, don’t forget about enlisting your kids and spouse to help with the household tasks. Feeling stressed about what needs to be done at home will only add to the pressure of an already busy workday.

Finally, don’t let stress make you sick. Conditions linked to stress range from the common cold to heart disease and depression. Stressed people end up eating more, drinking more alcohol, and sleeping and exercising less. If you can’t change a stressful situation, change your reaction to it.  Make a conscious effort to spend more time in a lower gear.

By Laura Nott

Posted on February 8th, 2016

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