Friday, September 10, 2004

IHT: Tied to office, workers pay with health


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 effect on workers' health and, by extension, on companies' bottom lines.

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

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

.Workplace stress costs the United States 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 Steven 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 those of other employees.

.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 America'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."

."The distinction between work and nonwork time is getting fuzzier all the time," said Donald Tepas, professor emeritus of industrial psychology at the University of Connecticut, who has studied the health and safety effects of overwork and sleeplessness.

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.

.Two other studies, led by Westerlund, the Swedish researcher, suggest that other forms of strain in the workplace can also affect health.

.The workers in organizations that were in transition had higher-than-average levels of cholesterol, high blood pressure and other biochemical markers of heart disease risk, the researchers found.

.One result of this uncertainty, experts say, is that employees are increasingly turning to medication like antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs to help them cope with the added pressures.

Citing research by Robert Karasek of the University of Massachusetts and colleagues, he said workers who felt that they had a measure of control over their environment were far less likely to find work stressful than those who felt utterly at the mercy of a capricious boss, a child's illness or a lurching economy.

.McEwen and other stress researchers have linked persistent stress to a variety of conditions, including obesity, impaired memory, and suppressed immune function.

"What we know about stress is that it's probably even worse than we thought," Kiecolt-Glaser said.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer

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