For doctors such as Elaine Chin, a troubling condition has plagued her patients ever since the recession started: “layoff survivor syndrome,” as it’s known. These individuals are simultaneously lucky and unlucky—they avoided getting a pink slip from their employer, but inherited the responsibilities and stress previously dispersed among several colleagues. Now, “they have more work than ever,” says Dr. Chin, the chief medical officer and co-founder of Scienta Health, a private clinic in Toronto specializing in personalized medicine. Long hours spent hunched over a desk, worrying about job security, or cramped on an airplane en route to yet another trade show or meeting is, ironically, doing these people in, warns Chin: “They are killing themselves” with work.
The recession’s negative impact on the health of Canadians is evident in the latest results of the Q-GAP test, an online questionnaire developed by Scienta. It allows individuals to determine which of more than 150 symptoms they exhibit, information that may provide clues to underlying or future medical problems.
“Symptoms are a sign of disturbances happening within your body,” explains Chin. They usually fall into one of three categories: hormonal imbalances, nutrient deficiencies or immune dysfunctions. It’s important to know about symptoms, so they can be remedied before serious problems arise. “These changes in your body can lead to disease if they’re not addressed,” says Chin, “and reversed.”
Since last May, more than 26,000 people have taken the Q-GAP test at macleans.ca/howhealthy, and those findings are the basis of this, the sixth annual “How Healthy Are You?” series. The data suggests that many Canadians, across all adult age groups, have forfeited physical activity, taken to eating poorly, and feel generally overweight, tired and unhappy. The very good news, however, is that there are countless ways to offset these symptoms. In this package there are articles about how to stick with an exercise regime, emerging research on the best diet for your genes, and one boss’s effort to make improvements in the workplace.
Demanding jobs and a rough economy are partly to blame for the most common type of symptoms identified by Q-GAP participants: joint pain, stiffness and muscle aches, all musculoskeletal problems. This was especially true for individuals aged 46 and older, who are often in the prime of their careers and holding down senior positions. Looking to save money in the recession, some abandoned the gym, thinking they could “do it on their own,” which is often easier said than done, Chin says. Others became “depressed and let go,” as she puts it, breaking a workout routine that once kept them motivated and physically agile. That’s unfortunate because people who are middle-aged and older are most likely to experience loss of flexibility and muscle mass.
Some layoff survivors, meanwhile, were so busy that they didn’t have time to exercise. A 2009 survey by CareerBuilder in the U.S. reveals that roughly half of layoff survivors have taken on more responsibility—that of at least two people, in some cases. Nearly a quarter of them say they now work weekends; approximately one-fifth clock a minimum of 10 hours a day on the job. Not surprisingly then, almost one in three layoff survivors say they are burnt out. A stunning 2003 report by the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder indicated that layoff survivors are more likely to smoke, drink, feel depressed, have neck and back pain, and use up more sick days.
That may help explain the other top symptoms shared by Q-GAP participants, 60 per cent of whom were between the ages of 26 and 55, which reveal the recession’s emotional and mental toll. Psychosocial symptoms were common, especially among those adults under age 46: individuals who took the test indicated feeling unhappy or frustrated with family members or partners—a likely consequence of work-life imbalance—and said they lacked a sense of purpose in their personal life. Emotional symptoms, such as sadness or depression, were also prevalent (again, especially in younger adults), and manifested in many hours spent lying awake in bed. “For these young people, their job security is uncertain, their relationships may not be steady. They’re wondering when they’re going to settle down and have a family,” explains Chin, “Everything is in flux.” Such stress likely contributed to the prevalence of headaches and gastrointestinal symptoms such as cravings, bloating and difficulty losing weight—especially for women, whose menstrual cycles also produce these symptoms. And you can bet that for many individuals a healthy diet went out the window along with that daily workout.
Fortunately, there are signs that the economy is turning a corner—and Chin is optimistic that the financial recovery will beget a personal wellness recovery, too. “I hope that people are going to get out of the bad habits they created during the recession,” she says, or liberate themselves from the ones thrust upon them by unrelenting workplaces. “Hopefully we’ll see less of a burden of symptoms in the coming year.” So survivors can turn into thrivers.