Stress as bad for health as secondhand smoke

By ELIZABETH LIU

NIKITA2706/ CC BY-SA 3.0

NIKITA2706/ CC BY-SA 3.0

As college students we have all grown accustomed to stress, and the consequences of stress can be very serious. Previous research has shown that, over the long term, stress can lead to health issues such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, high blood pressure, metabolic issues and a weakened immune system. Now there may be even more at stake: a new study suggests that stressful work conditions can be as damaging to health as secondhand smoke.

The study, published in the journal Behavioral Science & Policy Association, was a meta-analysis of 228 previously published scientific studies conducted by researchers at Harvard and Yale. The researchers investigated 10 workplace stressors that could impact an employee’s physical and mental health. The 10 factors that were measured included variables such as employment status, working hours, shift work, social support, social opportunities, organizational justice (perceived fairness in the workplace) and the availability of employer-provided health insurance.

The stressors were then analyzed to determine their effects on four outcomes: self-reported physical health, self-reported mental health, physician-diagnosed health issues and death. The findings were all presented as odds ratios, which showed how much each individual stressor — such as lack of health insurance – was likely to raise the odds of a negative outcome — such as an early death.

The results were grim: unemployment, lack of job control or absence of health insurance all seemed more likely to result in early death than did exposure to secondhand smoke. Long working hours and work that conflicts with family life were suggested to raise the risk of early death slightly when compared to risk of early death resulting from exposure to secondhand smoke.

Lack of health insurance, high job demands and low organizational justice were all variables that indicated a higher risk of being diagnosed with a disease by a physician than did exposure to secondhand smoke.

The researchers claimed that they were expecting similar results to the ones they discovered; individuals spend much of their time at work, so they were not surprised that stressful work conditions can have a strong impact on human health.

Recently, many companies have implemented wellness programs such as exercise and yoga classes during lunchtimes. These programs address the issue by focusing on changing employee behavior, but according to the researchers, that is only half of the problem. Companies and managers should also consider the cause of stress and the effects that the managers and bosses have on their staff.

The researchers do not offer specific suggestions for managers to make the workplace less stressful. Instead, they hope that the results will open the door for more discussions on striking a balance between wellness and workplace productivity.

However, in the meantime, there are a few activities that have been shown to lower stress. Some studies have suggested that daily meditation could make one more resilient to stress and stressful situations. In order to reduce stress it is also important to exercise regularly. Aerobic exercise, such as running, is an effective way to release endorphins: chemicals in the body that inhibit pain and that can produce feelings of euphoria, boost one’s mood, increase one’s energy and sharpen one’s focus. Staying organized can also be a good way to maintain control over stressful situations and schedules.

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