Working long hours in a stressful environment is great for your health–said no one ever. In fact, the truth is your job could be slowly killing you. Does that sound dramatic? Thousands of scientific studies on the effects of workplace stress on health agree that job stress has a direct negative impact on your physical and mental wellbeing.
Now, don’t take this as an excuse to slack off at work. In general, working hard is not bad for your health, but hard work shouldn’t drain you to the point of exhaustion. Maintaining a healthy work/life balance is key for overall wellbeing. However, too many workers are foregoing important activities like social events, exercise, and vacations which are all designed to promote good health.
Workplace stressors can be anything from a heavy workload to an annoying coworker. When stress affects us, it leads to emotional turmoil which often results in physical symptoms. Human beings are designed to deal with stress in short bursts. A little adrenaline boost every once in awhile heightens senses and sharpens the mind. But when the physical responses to stress (increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, etc) are sustained over long periods of time, it puts undue wear and tear on our bodies.
The more hours you work, the longer you are exposed to stress, and the worse your health becomes. In fact, one study found that long hours and low job control impact mortality rates more than exposure to second-hand smoke.1 You read that right; you’re more likely to die from your overtaxing job than you are from second-hand smoke.
Besides long hours and a heavy workload, other factors contributing to stress include exposure to discrimination, workplace injustice, sexual harassment, and bullying. Any workplace culture that promotes intense competition between employees or discourages a healthy work/life balance is directly contributing to workers’ stress levels.
The physical manifestations of workplace stress can take any number of forms, from chronic headaches to increased chances of stroke. When a worker cannot claim any major life change or direct exposure to illness but gets sick anyway, this can be attributed to stress and burnout.
Ergonomic issues can lead to spinal misalignment and migraines. Poor air quality inside the office can lead to respiratory symptoms. Sudden emotional responses–anger, in particular–have been linked to heart attacks and death.2 Workers may also suffer from lifestyle diseases, which include type 2 diabetes, dermatitis, hypertension, obesity, chronic stomach aches, and much more.
And these are just the physical symptoms. Cognitive functioning is also impaired by long-term occupational stress. Neural pathways are permanently changed over time and people suffering from emotional distress are less likely to be able to regulate their emotional responses. This could lead to depression, irritability, and other negative reactions in the workplace.3
With so many adverse health outcomes stemming from occupational stress, it may seem like an insurmountable problem, but there is hope on the horizon. Wellness programs now encompass a wide variety of offerings to promote health and happiness. These could include monetary incentives for reaching fitness goals; memberships for exercise, nutrition, and mindfulness classes; healthy lunch options at work; and, of course, time off to travel.
The process by which you reduce your stress levels is called “work recovery” and can only occur when you are away from any work-related activities. This means going on vacation! In fact, travel is one of the best ways to promote health and happiness. When you remove yourself from the stressors of your work environment, your health problems may just miraculously disappear as you find yourself enjoying the experience. Joy is a powerful emotion that can combat stress and promote work recovery.
But it takes more than a day away from the office to decrease burnout in the workplace. Combating negative health outcomes is also a matter of creating a workplace culture that encourages time off for a healthy work/life balance. Wellness programs are great on the surface, but all the gym memberships in the world won’t help the worker who is too busy with work to get to the gym. If you want to protect your physical health, you need to be thinking about how your job affects you.