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.
Men rarely see Thomas J. Weida, MD, for medical tests without prodding from a wife or girlfriend. When they do show up, Weida jokes that he “can see the drag marks on the carpet.”
It’s amusing, of course. But it can quickly turn serious when a man ignores important symptoms. Weida says he knows of men who got away with ignoring chest pain for a couple of weeks. Eventually, though, they died of heart attacks.
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 --
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
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
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.