Workload and stress undercutting health

New York Times

September 5, 2004
By John Schwartz

American workers are stressed out, and in an unforgiving economy, they are becoming more so every day.

Sixty-two percent say their workload has increased over the past six months; 53 percent say work leaves them “overtired and overwhelmed.”

Even at home, in the soccer bleachers, or at the Labor Day picnic, workers are never really off the clock, bound to BlackBerrys, cell phones and laptops. Add iffy job security, rising health care costs, ailing pension plans and the fear that a financial setback could put mortgage payments out of reach, and the office has become, for many, an echo chamber of angst.

It is enough to make workers sick — and it does.

Decades of research have linked stress to everything from heart attacks and stroke to diabetes and a weakened immune system. Now, however, researchers are connecting the dots, finding that the growing stress and uncertainty of the office have a measurable impact on workers’ health and, by extension, on companies’ bottom lines.

Workplace stress costs the nation more than $300 billion each year in health care, missed work and the stress-reduction industry that has grown up to soothe workers and keep production high, according to estimates by the American Institute of Stress in New York. And workers who report that they are stressed, said Dr. Steven L. Sauter, chief of the Organizational Science and Human Factors Branch of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, incur health care costs that are 46 percent higher, or an average of $600 more per person, than other employees.

“The costs are significant,” Sauter said. “Those are just the costs to the organization, and not the burden to individuals and to society.”

American workers are not the only ones grappling with escalating stress and ever-greater job demands. European companies are changing once-generous vacation policies, and stress-related illnesses cost England 13 million working days each year, one British health official said.

“It’s an issue everywhere you go in the world,” said Dr. Guy Standing, the lead author of “Economic Security for a Better World,” a new report from the International Labor Office, an agency of the United Nations.

White-collar workers are particularly at risk, Standing said, because “we tend to take our work home.”

Most stress-related health problems are a far cry from the phenomenon known in Japan as karoshi, or “death from overwork.” But downsizing, rapid business expansion, outsourcing — trends that some have credited with increasing the nation’s economic health — translate into increases in sick days, hospitalization, the risk of heart attack and a host of other stress-related problems, researchers find.

The changing workplace, said Hugo Westerlund, a researcher at the National Institute for Psychosocial Medicine in Stockholm, “does pose a threat to people’s health.”

More than 30 percent of workers say that they are “always” or “often” under stress at work, according to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, and a quarter of those surveyed in 2002 said there often were not enough co-workers to get the job done.

Other surveys show no end in sight. In a new report, Kronos, a human resources firm, found that 62 percent of American workers said their job activities and responsibilities had increased over the past six months and that they had not used all of their allotted vacation time in the past year. And 60 percent of those surveyed said they did not expect any respite from increased working hours in the next six months.

Pioneering studies in Scandinavia, where centralized health care allows researchers access to vast databases of medical conditions and treatment, have shown a strong link between downsizing and illness. A study by Finnish researchers published in February in the British Medical Journal, for example, found the risk of dying from a heart attack doubled among permanent employees after a major round of downsizing, with the risk growing to five times normal after four years.

© 2004 New York Times

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