Stressed at work? Nearly everyone is. One of the latest surveys about Americans in the workplace, by Harris Interactive for Everest College, shows that 83 percent of us are stressed out about our jobs. Not that this is news, exactly. The American Institute of Stress reports that work has been cited as the major source of stress in American adults for decades.
In fact, stress is so far rooted in the American workplace, it’s hard to imagine one without the other. So what if Harris Interactive’s poll showed a 10 percent bump in stressed-out workers from last year? Work is stress, so what’s the big deal?
But, when you consider the disease that’s associated with physical and mental workplace stress — nasty stuff like hypertension, diabetes, high triglycerides, obesity, heart attack, cancer, anxiety, and premature death, then taking a second look at how we work (and what it’s doing to our brains and bodies) becomes a very big, crucial deal.
For office jockeys glued to a screen for nine-plus hours, obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer become greater risks the more we stay seated. One recent study showed that those who sit for four hours instead of two see about a 50 percent increased risk of death from any cause at all — and a 125 percent increased risk of chest pain, heart attack, and other unplesantries associated with cardiovascular disease.
And, according to Dr. James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic who created the treadmill desk in the late ‘90s and specializes in inactivity research, these risks aren’t wiped away by an hour or two at the gym after work. “The prolonged effect of sitting on the body overrides the benefit [of a workout],” he says, noting that researchers suggest 10 minutes of on-your-feet activity per hour to counter the risks of hours-long sitting.
How can we get that 10 minutes of movement per hour with deadlines, meetings, and an ever-increasing workload, something that ranked as a top source of stress in the Harris Interactive survey? The late Dr. Toni Yancey, famed movement advocate and public health professor at UCLA, developed Instant Recess, a way for workers and students to integrate short bursts of activity into their sedentary days. She advocated for walking meetings, incorporating airline exercises while sitting, linking networked computers a distance away from desks, parking in distant lots, taking stairs, and coordinating short activity breaks with other employees. Just this month, the American Medical Association recognized the hazard of sedentary working by adopting a new policy on prolonged sitting in the workplace, asking employers to provide alternatives such as standing work stations and isometric balls that engage the core in lieu of chairs.
And yet, no amount of physical movement (short of running away from work altogether) can alleviate significant work stressors — like 24-hour connectivity and intense on-the-job emotional demands — that carry strong mental health risks. While increased connectivity and smarter smartphones have increased mobility away from the office, the phenomena have also made for longer work weeks and a drastically blurred boundary between work and personal time for many Americans.
A 2008 Pew Networked Workers survey showed that we tend to send emails and perform other work tasks when sick or on vacation. It also found that nearly half of Internet-connected workers say that this technology increases stress levels in their jobs, creates demands to work longer hours, and simultaneously makes it harder to disconnect from work. Additionally, a University of Texas at Austin study released last year showed that 30% of telecommuters work five to seven hours longer than those who work in an office.
Dr. Sharon Melnick, a psychologist who specializes in stress resilience and the author of Success Under Stress says that by being engaged 24/7, we are increasing our likelihood of health concerns including anxiety, poor sleep, and obesity. What’s more, we are exhausting our bodies when we don’t fully disengage from work.
“Our nervous system has an 'on' and 'off' button," Melnick says. "The on button is the response where we get a lot of energy and adrenaline going, along with the ability to focus and problem solve. The off button gives us access to feeling calm and rejuvenated, to resting, digesting, and all of the internal functions that keep our immune system going." In theory, we should operate with coordination between the on and off buttons, she says. “But, the way that we’re living today, most of us are only using our on button. We’re overactive in our on button — always reacting, responding, and feeling like we need to respond. Push, push, push, go, go, go, do, do, do, give, give, give.”
“Over time, you’re only using the part of the system that is pushing you and you’re not getting enough of the off button," she continues. That downtime is crucial, because it's when your internal functions — everything from the immune system to the digestive system — are able to renew and repair. And, if you're out of balance? "Your body is putting all its energy into sending that last email or worrying about where your next client is going to come from instead of taking care of its health," Melnick says. "It can lead to wear and tear, and it can lead to all major diseases."
With connected devices and a never-ending work cycle, it’s hard to maneuver into “off” mode. But Melnick advises trying what she calls a “mental reset breath” when switching from work to personal life mode. To do so, take a couple of minutes to engage in a three-part breath: Breathe in through your nose for a count, hold for a count and exhale for a count. “It will train your nervous system to have success under stress,” she says.
Another way our mental health is challenged at work is by navigating intense psychosocial demands. Whether dealing with the anger, sorrow, desperation, and frustration of a client or co-worker, a recent study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine showed that distress at work was 38 percent more likely for those who were said to have experienced these emotional demands.
Melnick says that dealing with intense emotional demands of a job creates the same stress response in our nervous system as when operating in “on” mode — we undergo the same energetic, adrenaline-laced fight-flight-or-freeze freakout and invite the same health risks as well. To help manage this and other work stress, Melnick suggests asking yourself, “Are you doing everything you can to control what you can at work? Have you tried to make your work situation better?”
“There are so many things you can do,” she says, launching into a rapid-fire list of emotion-based solutions. “You can control your response to interruptions, choose not to say “yes” all the time, be more confident rather than criticizing yourself, talk to your boss about your priorities and request that your workload be more manageable, influence people more effectively by understanding what drives them rather than hoping people will read your mind, and understand why people do what they do so you’re not taking things personally.”
What if the resetting of the “on” and “off” buttons, emotional triggers, or physical movement in your job still leaves you feeling sick and tired? Or, if you find yourself setting work boundaries only to find they’re not sustainable? It may be time to jump ship and find a position that better supports your mental and physical health.
The measure may seem drastic, but Melnick says the rewards are invaluable. “There’s no question that it's scary [to leave a job for a new venture] but it’s also completely fulfilling and exhilarating,” she says. “Anyone you look at who is happy and successful has gone through that fire has been willing to ask the questions and take baby steps in order to get there. People who are willing to do it come out the other side and have the life they want.”