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Workplace Stress and Your Health

Experts explain the dangers of work-related stress and provide solutions.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

If you have a cruel boss or rotten co-workers, beware. It may not be just your job that's on the line.

Clearly, a work environment that includes insults, back stabbing and belittling can erode an employee's morale. What's less understood is that such a toxic work atmosphere can also lead to deteriorating health. At WebMD, we talked to the experts to find out what it is about negative work relationships that can cause so much stress, how our bodies react to chronic workplace stress, and what it takes to find relief.

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How many times have you watched someone get a promotion when your hard work goes unnoticed, or attempted to offer your insight to management, only to have it fall on deaf ears? Working in an unjust environment can make you sick -- really sick.

A Need to Be Heard

Feeling trapped in a workplace that isn't fair can actually increase your risk for coronary heart disease (CHD), a leading cause of death in the U.S. In a two-part landmark Finnish study conducted between 1985 and 1990, researchers surveyed more than 6,000 male British civil servants -- without presence of CHD -- regarding how fair, or unfair, they perceived their employers. Subjects who reported a high level of justice at work were 30% less likely to develop CHD than workers who consistently experienced injustice at work.

Just how did study participants define "justice" in the workplace? Those who felt their bosses considered their viewpoints, treated them truthfully, and included them in decision-making processes said they worked in "just" workplaces.

The results of the study show what many experts say: Feeling like you haven't been heard ranks as the most stressful aspect of interpersonal work relationships. "It's a helplessness that comes when employees feel like they've expressed themselves and been discounted, or someone hasn't taken the time to listen to them," says psychologist Carol Kauffman, PhD, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School's department of psychiatry.

Others agree. "The workplace needs to feel meaningful. If you feel like you're not respected, that your opinion isn't meaningful, you're at an increased risk of heart disease," says Bruce Rabin, MD, PhD, a professor of pathology and psychiatry at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. On the flip side, Rabin tells WebMD, "Feeling a part of the workplace is a meaningful buffer to the health effects of stress.

Reacting to Co-Workers

How workers react to negative interpersonal relationships in the workplace, be it passive-aggressive co-workers or disgruntled bosses, also has a dramatic impact on subsequent stress levels.

"Some people are more prone to stress reactions. They're likely to be people who have difficulty managing on a day-to-day basis. They may not have effective problem-solving skills, or be predisposed to high levels of anxiety and uncertainty," says social worker Len Tuzman, DSW, an expert on stress management. This is particularly true for employees that Tuzman calls "catastrophizers" -- those who blow a situation out of proportion until it becomes a major calamity.

Just how great a toll does workplace stress take on employees' health? While it's impossible to tease out every illness and adverse health effect that began as a reaction to stress, Minnesota-based health management company StayWell compared the costs of stress with 10 other common health risk factors -- among more than 46,000 employees of both private- and public-sector companies. The risk factors included tobacco and alcohol use, overweight, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Cumulatively, these 11 modifiable health risk factors were found to comprise 25% of companies' total health care expenditures. The most costly risk factor? Stress.

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