Stress at Work: Is Your Job Making You Sick?

The links between bad jobs and physical ailments are becoming ever clearer.

Sandy (not her real name) used to have one of the most enviable jobs in New York. By the time she was barely out of her 20s, she had her own column at a major newspaper, was invited to every party in the city, and seemed to live a fabulously glamorous life. Until one day, in 2008, to the shock of people in the industry, she quit. Her job—or, rather, her boss—was making her sick. Literally.

“My boss was pretty into emotional debasement—she had a pattern of bullying and insults,” she says. “She created a poisonous atmosphere of Mean Girls in the office. I tried on several occasions to discuss it with her, but it did no good.” Sandy, who had previously “loved her job,” was literally sick with stress. “My boss just became really emotionally abusive in a way that I couldn't handle any longer, and the atmosphere at work made me psychologically and physically ill—I started getting headaches. I was having panic attacks for the first time in my life.” After the headaches developed into migraines, Sandy, who now works for another publication, had had enough.

“One day I was fed up and couldn't stomach working for her another day. I walked out of the office and threw my BlackBerry off the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Scientists have long known that stress can lead to physical symptoms, but the explicit link between job-related anxiety and ailments is now becoming clearer. According to a study by the Centre for Mental Health Research at Australian National University, people with jobs characterized by high demand, low control over decision making, high job insecurity, and an imbalance between expended effort and reward actually experienced poorer mental health than those who were jobless. In other words, people who can’t find a job have a healthier state of mind than those who are employed and feel overwhelmed, insecure, underpaid, and micromanaged.

In another study, scientists at University College London found a link between being denied a promotion and heart disease. They also documented higher blood pressure in those with stressful jobs.

More people may be dealing with an unhealthy work atmosphere since the economy went south; employers generally are asking employees to work harder, longer hours for less pay. The insinuation is, you’re lucky to have a job at all, so stop complaining and get back to work.

“What I’ve noticed is that the recession gave managers an excuse for being bad and going back to old ways, telling employees, ‘You have to be here from this time to this time,’ but that’s crazy,” says Marcia Reynolds, author of Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. “There are all these books about new leadership, but I don’t see that many leaders practicing that. They mostly think in back of their head, well, you’re lucky to have their job, and that’s how companies lose their best and brightest and end up with mediocrity.”

Earlier this year, after working as a successful bicoastal talent agent for 10 years, Kathy (who asked that her name be changed) also quit her job.

“My job was gratifying for a long time, until business became a lot harder,” she says. “There were changes in media and the recession. I started feeling like I had to run faster just to stay in place ... And the world was changing, but my business was not. I probably worked six to six and a half days a week. At least one day on the weekend, every weekend. I structured my social life around making sure it didn’t impinge on when I could work. If I had to cancel on a friend or schedule something around work, I would do it, because work came first. I started looking not five years ahead, but 20 years ahead, and I didn’t like what I saw.”

Lack of support from her bosses and their unwillingness to keep up with the times, not to mention no raise in pay, hit home and started having a physical effect on Kathy. “I was exhausted and definitely disillusioned,” she says. “A dear friend used the word ‘despondent’ to describe me, and that really hit home. I started to develop some stress-related health issues.” After developing bleeding ulcers, she knew she had to leave—and gave her notice. Several months later, Kathy is now happily working in business development with a young, energetic, and supportive team.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, an economist and founder of the Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank, says, “Work has become more extreme. What we find in the data in high-professional jobs is that people are being forced to do more with less. There is a tremendous expansion in the scope of jobs—the pressure’s up, but the salary isn’t. People are feeling really browned out and very depleted. You can actually measure what’s happening to bodies when you work 51 weeks a year, 73 hours a week—you get pretty sick, because your resilience is low.”

“We are much more savvy right now about the relationship between stress and physical and mental health—the mind-body relationship,” says Connie Glaser, a corporate consultant who specializes in advising companies on how to maintain talent. “Employers are going to have to change. It has been suggested that if an employee at upper-management senior level leaves, it will cost between 100 and 150 percent of his or her salary to replace them. It costs a lot more if that person has clients, subordinates, and the savviness that is hard to replace.”

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But until management starts to understand and value key employees, and changes its own behavior, employees like Sandy and Kathy will continue to leave their jobs—despite the economy—for ones that won’t make them sick to their stomachs.