How Unhealthy Is Work Stress?

Work stress is no joke, and if you're stuck in the middle of a rough patch at your office, it can seem like it will kill you. Indeed, an alarming new study shows that work stress is as unhealthy as secondhand smoke — which is to say it's pretty darn unhealthy because smoking is terrible for you. This kind of news may tempt you to do something drastic, but before you turn in your resignation, stop and take a moment to think about work stress in context.

The new study on work stress comes to us from researchers at Harvard's Business School and Stanford University. They conducted a meta-study using 228 existing studies of workplace stressors (like "job insecurity, family-work conflict, high job demands and long work hours") to figure out the relationship between these stressors and poor outcomes. Two of the poor outcomes were objective — being diagnosed with a medical condition and dying. Two other conditions relied on self-reports — poor physical health and poor mental health.

Publishing in the journal Behavioral Science & Policy Association, the researchers found that the workplace stress of "high job demands" is correlated with a 50 percent increased chance of being diagnosed with a health condition. Job insecurity raises the risks of reporting oneself to be in poor physical or mental health by 50 percent. Finally, long hours increase chances of mortality by 20 percent. These risks are similar to those of being exposed to secondhand smoking, a comparison that really drives the point home.

I have many questions, though. What constitutes "high job demands?" It's tempting for all of us to assume we hold a super demanding job that's killing us, but the reality is likely that these jobs are probably fairly rare and that the people working them are careerist types. Self-reports are notoriously unreliable, too. If you ask someone to focus on whether she has a physical or mental health condition of any kind, she's very likely to go ahead and say "yes," even if her quality of life is quite good.

Job insecurity is a real problem, one America has had to confront, especially since the recession. But that's actually a health problem related to a fear of unemployment, not employment exactly. Unemployment itself is known to have many ill effects on physical and mental health, so people are right to fear it. For instance, people who have been laid off are much more likely to develop a new health condition than those who are working (even though those who are working may be having a stressful time).

Another report shows that unemployed people face a mortality increase of 50 to 100 percent. This is obviously way worse than the mortality risk from long hours (and your work hours probably aren't even as long as you think). Instead of doing all the things they dreamed of doing with their new-found time, people who aren't employed spend much of their time watching television, and television watching itself constitutes a huge health risk (involving diabetes, heart disease, and death).

So, as it turns out, the only thing worse than work stress is, oops, the stress of not working! I offer these bloggers, who dropped everything to travel the world but ended up cleaning toilets, as a cautionary tale. In the end, life is just kind of stressful, although the stress takes different forms for different people at different times. There are many ways to make yourself feel happier at work that you can try, and they're all likely to leave you much better off than not working. Because, when it comes to work stress, you're damned if you have any, but you're also damned if you don't.

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