According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, short-lived or infrequent episodes of stress pose little risk. However, when stressful situations go unresolved, the body is kept in a constant state of activation, which increases the rate of wear and tear to biological systems. Ultimately, fatigue or damage results, and the ability of the body to repair and defend itself can become seriously compromised, increasing the risk of injury or disease. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that health care expenditures are nearly 50 percent greater for workers who report high levels of stress.
Work-related stress has not only been linked to life-threatening illnesses such as heart attacks, stroke, and depression but also an increased risk for development of back and upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders. However, a recent report is raising concerns about a potential new impact stress is having on employees -- obesity.
Stress and weight.
Researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center unveiled a report that found that chronic job stress is strongly associated with being overweight or obese. The study also found that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables did little to offset the effect of chronic job stress on weight gain among the employees, who were mostly sedentary. Instead, exercise seemed to be the key to managing stress and keeping a healthy weight.
The study examined nearly 2,800 employees at a large manufacturing facility in upstate New York. However, researchers said the results could be applicable to almost any job situation in which layoffs or lack of control at work are major concerns. Diana Fernandez, lead author and epidemiologist at the URMC Department of Community and Preventive Medicine, said her study is among many that associate high job pressure with cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, depression, exhaustion, anxiety, and weight gain.
"In a poor economy, companies should take care of the people who survive layoffs and end up staying in stressful jobs," she said. "It is important to focus on strengthening wellness programs to provide good nutrition, ways to deal with job demands, and more opportunities for physical activity that are built into the regular workday without penalty."
Fernandez said her team heard the same story from the workers. After spending the day sitting in stressful meetings or at their computers, they looked forward to going home and "vegging out" in front of the TV. Anecdotally, researchers also discovered that when pink slips were circulating, the snacks highest in fats and calories would disappear quickest from the vending machines. Some workers said they did not take the time to eat well or exercise at lunch because they were fearful of repercussions from leaving their desks for too long.
Fernandez said stressful working conditions are known to impact health behaviors directly and indirectly. Directly, stress can affect the neuroendocrine system, resulting in abdominal fat, for example, or it may cause a decrease in sex hormones, which often leads to weight gain. Indirectly, stress is linked to the consumption of too many fatty or sugary foods and inactivity.
Reduce workplace stress.
Employers have many options to reduce stress in the workplace. According to NIOSH, employers can:
- Provide stress management resources. Stress management training and employee assistance programs can help workers cope with difficult work situations. Stress management programs should teach workers about the nature and sources of stress, the effects of stress on health, and personal skills to reduce stress, for example, time management or relaxation exercises. Studies have shown that these programs can rapidly reduce stress symptoms such as anxiety and sleep disturbances.
- Fit the job to the worker. Ensure that the workload is in line with workers' capabilities and resources.
- Make work meaningful. Design jobs to provide meaning, stimulation and opportunities for workers to use their skills.
- Define roles. Clearly define workers' roles and responsibilities. Give workers opportunities to participate in decisions and actions affecting their jobs.
- Examine work schedules. Establish work schedules that are compatible with demands and responsibilities outside the job.
- Encourage wellness. Wellness and exercise programs are good ways to help employees burn off stress while reducing their waistlines. Offer healthy options in your vending machines or cafeteria, promote company exercise programs such as lunch time walking groups, or bring in a nutritionist to help employees achieve a healthier lifestyle.
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May 17, 2010
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