These 3 rules could save your life

If you feel sick and tired at work, the truth is you truly may be sick from being overly tired and stressed.

It turns out that workplace stress is as lethal as second-hand smoke. It brings on disease and early death. What’s more, workplace wellness programs don’t seem to be making much of an impact at all. Something needs to change.

Stress ruins lives

Stress is a killer. If gone unchecked, it ruins lives. It causes high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, compulsive overeating and excessive consumption of alcohol, and smoking. It prevents and disturbs sleep and creates havoc in the home. It is a serious condition that ruins lives.

Many people spend a large portion of their days, their lives, in the workplace, and as they do, stress mounts. In fact, according to a study by researchers at Harvard Business School and Stanford University, published by the Behavioral Science and Policy Association, stress in the “workplace is related to numerous health outcomes, including increased risks of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, depression, and anxiety.”

The stress/work study

Researchers conducted a meta-analysis of evidence from 228 other studies that met their criteria. They examined workplace conditions presumed to undermine health, including: long working hours and shift work; work–family conflict; job control, which refers to the level of discretion that employees have over their work; and job demands. They call this combination, “job strain.”

The results are frightening:

  • High job demands increased the odds of having an illness diagnosed by a doctor by 35%.
  • Long work hours increased the chances of early death by almost 20%.
  • Worry that you might soon lose your job increased the odds of having poor health by about 50%.

The researchers point out that one reason for this may be that health policies have largely ignored the adverse health effects of workplace related stress. This includes high job demands, financial insecurity, and long work hours. Doing more, faster, for longer periods, and with the potential end result being a layoff or firing has left our workforce, and thus our country, in serious health trouble:

  • Job insecurity increases the odds of reporting poor health by about 50%.
  • High job demands raise the odds of having a physician-diagnosed illness by 35%.
  • Long work hours increase mortality by almost 20%.

Failed workplace programs

Workplace wellness programs are now a staple benefit of half of all mid to large size companies. These days, having access to a gym, flex spending accounts, dietary and emotional counselors on call are all part and parcel of current wellness packages. But they don’t seem to be making an impact at all.

According to the research, less than half of all employees actually participate in the wellness programs offered or utilize their services. The reason: Employees are forced to work too many hours, or in too stressful of an environment, to then have the time or energy needed to make use of these programs.

Plus, the payout provides no incentive: “the average difference in health care costs between people who participated in such programs and those who did not was just $157 annually, an amount that is neither substantively nor statistically significant.”

That’s what we call failure.

Work environment is the key

Having wellness programs in place is of no use if:

  1. Schedules are so tight there is no time to participate in them; and
  2. The work environment is so stressful that it damages health to such a degree that such programs become null and useless.

The researchers hit the nail on the head: “Management practices in the workplace can either produce or mitigate stress related to long working hours, heavy job demands, an absence of job control, a lack of social support, and pervasive work–family conflict.”

In the Stanford survey 30% of respondents reported that work-related stress was so severe that it adversely affected their health. What’s more, the study concluded that “the effect of workplace stress is about as large as that of secondhand tobacco smoke, an exposure that has generated much policy attention and efforts to prevent or remediate its effects.”

These results support several conclusions:

  • Unemployment and low job control have significant associations with all of the health outcomes, as does an absence of health insurance for those outcomes for which there are sufficient numbers of studies. With the exception of work–family conflict, all of the work stressors we examined are significantly associated with an increased likelihood of developing a medical condition, as diagnosed by a doctor.
  • Psychological and social aspects of the work environment, such as a lack of perceived fairness in the organization, low social support, work–family conflict, and low job control, are associated with health as strongly as more concrete aspects of the workplace, such as exposure to shift work, long work hours, and overtime.
  • The association between workplace stressors and health is strong in many instances. For example, work–family conflict increases the odds of self-­reported poor physical health by about 90%, and low organizational justice increases the odds of having a physician-­diagnosed condition by about 50%.

What needs to happen

What we see clearly here is that increasing costs of healthcare and poor health outcomes are inversely related. It doesn’t seem to matter that the United States spends double per capita on health care than every other wealthy nation, because we rank 26th overall for longevity. It is not quality of care, but our daily work environment that is killing us — despite medical advances and dollars spent on healthcare.

In other words, prevention is key, not treatment after the fact.

Employers must create a healthier business culture and work environment. In addition to nutritional counselors, stress counselors, and gym memberships, the research suggests they must begin to include “social support; social networking opportunities; organizational justice, which refers to the perceived level of fairness in the workplace; and availability of health insurance, which affects access to health care and preventive screenings and, therefore, mortality.” Without these supports, workplace stress is not sufficiently mitigated.

What’s more, each person must feel, track and manage their own stress and wellness. They need to say enough is enough and take steps to reduce work day stress. For starters:

  • Take walking breaks
  • Do not eat at your desk
  • Place firm limits on amount of work hours and travel

It’s difficult, I know. But eating right and exercising is not enough when you spend 30 to 50 percent of each day slowly being killed by stress at work. Time to stop!


Dr. Mark Wiley

By Dr. Mark Wiley

Dr. Mark Wiley is an internationally renowned mind-body health practitioner, author, motivational speaker and teacher. He holds doctorates in both Oriental and alternative medicine, has done research in eight countries and has developed a model of health and wellness grounded in a self-directed, self-cure approach. Dr. Wiley has written 14 books and more than 500 articles. He serves on the Health Advisory Boards of several wellness centers and associations while focusing his attention on helping people achieve healthy and balanced lives through his work with Easy Health Options® and his company, Tambuli Media.