Working ourselves sick -

Working ourselves sick

The consequences of non-stop job stress include depression, weight gain and heart disease


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Dr. Diana Fernandez, an epidemiologist at the University of Rochester Medical Center, spent two years studying what she calls a “typical American workplace” and its health effects on employees. Her findings were stark: pressures at work are linked to cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, and self-reported poor health, she noted in a recent study of one U.S. company, and chronic job stress is strongly associated with being overweight or obese. What some would call the company’s most important assets—its workers—were in very poor shape.

These employees didn’t lack the resources to eat well and exercise, her findings suggest; most were middle-aged, married, and highly educated, making more than $60,000 a year. They’d worked at the company an average of almost 22 years. Still, about three-quarters of the 2,782 subjects were overweight or obese. Job strain had a lot to do with it. “People didn’t want to be perceived as working less than others,” so they’d spend long hours at their desks, she says, eating up time that could be spent relaxing at home, or getting some exercise at the gym. In especially stressful times, they told her, they also turned to junk food. Anecdotally, “when the next round of layoffs came, the first thing that disappeared from the vending machine were the brownies,” she says. When employees got home, more than 65 per cent of them watched two hours or more of television a day.

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Stressful working conditions aren’t just a problem for individual workers, says Dr. Elaine Chin, chief medical officer of Scienta Health, a private medical clinic based in Toronto; poor employee health creates a problem for the entire company, leading to time away from the office, higher utilization of benefits and drug plans, and “presenteeism,” she says, a word for employees showing up even when they’re not well.

Keeping employees and their managers in good shape is crucial for a company’s success. When an executive is incapacitated, the effect on the bottom line can be especially severe: losing such a person to illness can cost companies into the millions after lost revenue, disability expenses, and the costs of finding a replacement are taken into account, according to Chin. But most company health plans focus on treating disease instead of preventing it, which is backwards, Chin says. “Get employees healthy and keep them healthy, so they’re more productive. What people do with their body affects their brain.”

A growing number of companies are awakening to this reality, recognizing that the first step is identifying potential health issues, ideally before they become full-blown. Scienta’s corporate health program uses tools like the Q-GAP (a test currently available online at to identify the next step for medical screening and education in order to spend health care dollars in the workplace in a targeted way.

“Historically, [corporate health plans] have been one-size-fits-all,” Chin says, but just as symptoms vary among people, “we can’t assume that company A needs what company B or C does.” If it’s a young office, for example, “maybe instead of over-contributing to a life insurance policy,” you could invest elsewhere, Chin says. Workers offered a flex account may choose to spend some on massage, eyeglasses, or another health care service, according to their needs and their families’.

One of the first companies to adopt Scienta’s vision of targeted, personalized employee health spending was Cundari Group Ltd., a Toronto-based integrated advertising firm. Prior to this, says chairman and chief executive officer Aldo Cundari, the company offered a gym facility and benefit plan; still, he noticed how many workers in the industry were under severe stress, and thought he could do more. Last fall, he brought Scienta’s Q-GAP test into the office. “Our compliance rate was quite high,” he says. “We don’t like making it mandatory. In advertising, there are a lot of free-spirited individuals.”

The results were telling. Cundari’s staff is relatively young—almost half are aged 25 to 35—but few were symptom-free. Some of the most common complaints, Scienta found, included headaches, muscle pains, lack of sleep, bloating, and feelings of frustration. Women tended to report musculoskeletal and gastrointestinal issues, while men suffered more from emotional and psychosocial problems. Given these results, Scienta recommended modifying the plan to encourage better use of some health care professionals, like counsellors and dieticians, among other suggestions. Cundari’s now looking at ways to tweak the benefits package for optimal use; but even having test results in hand made a huge difference with individual employees, he says, as it spurred them to act. “Now that we have the information, it’s easier to see the areas [where] we can all improve,” he says.

Scienta is looking to personalize corporate health care even further—through “desk-side” biometric screening that could test for stress, pre-diabetes and cardiac risk through saliva and blood samples taken from a finger prick, for example. More traditional interventions can make a difference, too. In Fernandez’s study, she and her team focused on creating a work environment that promotes healthier living, including providing nutritional information in the cafeteria; changing snacks in the vending machine; and promoting use of the company gym facility. Above all, “the culture has to change, and that has to come from management,” Fernandez says. “Without management support, these interventions do not work.”

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Working ourselves sick

  1. I can understand the motive behind changing the snacks in vending machines, introducing health screens, and promoting gym use. But in the end wouldn't it be better to address the root problem of stress? Why are people stressed in the workplace? Is that something that has gotten worse in recent decades, or has that always been the case? What can we do to make work less stressful and more enjoyable?

    • I was stressed to the max 10 years ago, in my dream corporate job, and I resigned and started my own biz — doing the same thing but from my home.

      I've lost weight; my blood pressure is normal; I don't have raw emotions — don't cry or yell at the drop of a hat. I am truly healthier and happier. I leave the house to swim each morning; I leave the house to walk my dog each afternoon. Work seems more natural — it is literally just another room in my house.

      I also don't make as much money as I did 10 years ago. Yes, that is a bit of a trade off, but I'm okay with it.

      I think it's the powerlessness of the workplace — even in relatively highly placed positions, there's a lack of empowerment in workplaces. That and the many personalities one has to deal with, over and over again. Stupid people, mean people, ambitious people, political people, unskilled people who get promoted over you; bosses…

      Yes, I think everyone should quit their JOB, stay home and work in their pyjamas. It would be a happier world and no less productive, believe me.

      • Some of us don't have that kind of leeway because we either have to use equipment that isn't feasible in the home or we have to deal with large numbers of other people, and there is no substitute for face-to-face contact.

        • I understand that Gaunilon, but the massive sick leaves and stress leaves, etc — the complete breakdowns — that I witnessed in the big fat corporate workplace indicate someone needs to find some leeway somewhere and make some changes.

          Interestingly, it's usually changes in the workplace that cause the most stress…

  2. Try having 60K in OSAP (student loans) hanging over your head when you are just starting out your career, are at the lowest base pay and have three children to take care of.

  3. The biggest contributor to stress is an imbalance of demands over resources: too much to do with too little time, stuff, or people.
    The second contributor is the aggravation of tasks that don't make sense: people want to devote their talent and energy to something of real value.
    It's fine that companies invest in workplace health initiatives that help to alleviate stress. It would be better still if they designed their workflow to assure that they made demands that fit employees' resources while doing work that's truly worth doing.

    All the best,

  4. I have been off work with stress since Jan 8.2010. I have worked with the co for 34 years and I am very knowledgeable. Because of my knowledge, everyone comes to me for assistance. At times it is so overwehelming that I want to scream. I cover for vacations, sickeness and I just can't do it anymore. We are given specific targets. Example there are over 100 staff memebers in our Co. and that target was to make 195 errors or less durig the year, We had 181, target accomplished. Now this year our goal is 100, so less than one error per person per year. When does it stop. I hope the next generation will be stronger than us baby boomers and stand up for their rights and not "kill" themselves with heart problems etc. for their companies

  5. stressing sucks, but there are so many easy and simple ways to destress and hopefully stop it altogether. i found a great site for a list of 25 ways to destress, you should read it!

  6. I think that instead of bogus diabetes screens at work and bogus counseling and wellness programs, that companies return to treating employees humanely. Long overtimes, micro-management, 24-hours a day calls and e-mails, workplace intrusions, and less time for family, add to the stress. Workers face enormous financial debts and lack of economic freedom that previous generations did not endure. Physicians and counselors seem to be faced with providing damage control for patients who have sustained physical damage at stressful companies.

  7. i still llike to know what do the initials GAP mean?

  8. Protection for workers needs to be strengthened. Years of abuse and harassment from my employer almost killed me. I am now on permanent disability. I don't know what happened to morals, ethics, and competence in the workplace, but it seems to me that abusive unethical people get promoted while those of us who care and try to do a good honest competent job get punished. Unethical supervisors write the evaluations and can slant them any way they like to make themselves and their favourites look good. You're not allowed to have any balance in your life. You are forced to work 24/7/365. You can't sue an employer who has tens of millions for a lawyer budget. Their policy is to fight every lawsuit. It doesn't make any difference if they are in the right or wrong. They just make the lawsuit so long and drawn out you run out of money for a lawyer and lose your lawsuit. Then you get sued for the other person's legal fees and lose everything even when you are in the right and the law supposedly is on your side. Justice and the defence of your rights in Canada depends on how much money you have. You had better have a lot or you're dead. Literally.

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