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Job stress takes a toll on health

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 22, 2012 - When people say, “My job is making me sick,” they might be speaking literally.

At a time when unemployment is high, job security is low and financial concerns are paramount, many with jobs are working as hard as they can to avoid layoffs or earn overtime pay. Some are working two or more jobs to make ends meet. And millions of Americans have taken low-wage jobs despite being qualified for work that would pay higher salaries.

The strain on those who are jobless can be even more profound.

James Miller, a Chesterfield resident, graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design in 2009. He has been looking for a job in industrial design for three years. “After so many rejections, it's impossible not to feel depressed” he said. “I’m really struggling to maintain my self-esteem, and confidence is something you can’t do without when you’re trying to impress potential employers. I never used to get sick but now it’s a lot more frequent. I’m very, very anxious all the time. I can’t sleep. I constantly feel tense, my back is always killing me, my neck is always killing me. I’m physically exhausted. I used to do loads of exercise, now I feel out of breath just walking around outside.”

The American Psychological Association's 2010 “Stress in America” survey reported that work-related stress is prevalent and on the increase. The most common sources are financial (76%) or work-related (70%), and 65% of the people surveyed report being stressed about the economy. Concern over job stability is increasing. In 2010, 49 percent cited job stability as a significant stressor, up from 44 percent the year before. Work-life balance seems to be deteriorating as well. In 2010, 64 percent were disatisfied with their work-life balance, up from 58 percent in 2009.

Just under half of workers cited low salary as a significant cause of their work-related stress; 48 percent felt undervalued. Forty-three percent blamed their stress on a heavier workload; 40 percent on employers expecting too much from them, and 39 percent on longer hours. The survey found that the majority of Americans perceive their stress levels to be unhealthy. Forty-four percent believed that their stress levels had increased over the past five years. 

Stress can cause physical problems

Long-term mental stress can lead to physical maladies. “Whether we are stressed about the economy or we are trying to protect ourselves from a physical threat, our bodies respond similarly by gearing us up to fight or run away to protect ourselves," said Jennifer Abel, a local therapist and author of Active Relaxation: How to Increase your Productivity and Achieve Balance by Decreasing Stress and Anxiety. "When we have stress with no place to go, in addition to feeling keyed-up and anxious, the increases in heart rate, adrenalin, cortisol, and blood pressure can have numerous deleterious effects on our health.  These include fatigue, headaches, skin disorders, irritable bowel syndrome and a whole host of other physical ailments."

The Psychological Association's survey described some of the health problems respondents experienced. In the month preceding the survey, over 40 percent said stress had caused them to lose sleep; the same percentage had indulged in overeating or eaten unhealthy foods, and nearly a third had skipped meals. Many said they were simply too busy to eat better or get enough exercise. Nearly a third said they exercise less than once per week. The physical symptoms reported as a result of stress included irritability (45 percent), fatigue (41 percent) and lack of energy or motivation (38 percent).

Not everyone responds the same way. "We all experience stressors every day,” said Dr. Barry Hong, professor of psychiatry and medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Most of us can tune them out and prevent them from causing us harm, but some people are less able to adapt. For most, stressors can be just small nagging things to which we stop paying attention if they go on for a long time. This is a physiological phenomenon called habituation.”

For those who are less able to adapt, these long-term stressors can become disruptive and cause illness, he added. “There are medical illnesses that can be ‘switched on’ by long-term stress. The relationship is shaky because of the difference in how individuals react, but in some who are susceptible, stress can lead to the switching on of autoimmune illnesses such as chronic herpetic infections (cold sores, for example), skin rashes, ulcers, high blood pressure, and sleep disruption.”

Doug Clemens, who narrowly lost a Democratic primary race for state representative from St. Ann in 2010, said he heard numerous stress-related stories from constituents while campaigning. “Going door-to-door in my community, I’ve seen these problems first hand. Experienced people cannot find jobs at their own level so they are forced to take jobs for which they are very over-qualified, and at drastically lower wages. And recent college graduates cannot compete with their years of experience.”

As the Beacon reported recently, increasingly college graduates are moving back in with their parents because they cannot find work.

Miller is currently living with his girlfriend's parents. “While I feel incredibly lucky that I have people to help me out in these tough times, I also feel ashamed that I have to live in someone’s basement at my age” said Miller. “I was told that my degree would open doors for me, but I’ve applied for hundreds of positions, and I always lose out to people who are a little further on in their careers.”

Many current college students who are facing a bleak job market report increasing stress as a result, according to a national survey conducted by the American College Counseling Association. Some will need to start repaying loans they took out for their educations whether or not they have been able to find jobs.

Poverty affects health

Falling incomes can mean scrimping on staples that sustain a healthy lifestyle. “Our raise this year was so low that, with inflation, it’s essentially a pay cut. I’m having to buy the cheapest food I can find so that I can afford my bills, and that’s affecting my health, with all the preservatives and fat and salt,” said postal worker Naomi Parr.

James Miller feels the same way. “You look at things in the aisle in a different way,” Miller said. “You make choices based on price instead of what you actually want. Fresh vegetables are just so much more expensive than the processed foods.”

For those who cannot afford health insurance, the problems are multiplied. St. Louis resident Charles Washington suffers from asthma. When the economy was better, he made money selling goods on eBay, and on Craigslist. "People just aren’t buying things anymore. I’ve actually had to give stuff away because I can’t store it. I can’t afford my health insurance anymore, so I haven't been getting my medication. When I have an asthma attack, I have to go to the emergency room,” Washington said.

Try to stay positive

Dr. Hong counsels that it is important for workers to keep their spirits up. “The best thing to do is just to forget that you are stressed, and move on,” he said.

He recognizes that this is easier said that done. Postal worker Parr can attest to that. “The money I earn doesn’t go anywhere near as far as it did before, which means I don’t get to go and see my family because I can’t afford the gas,” she said. "It’s really upsetting. I’m isolated from my whole family.”

Parr said that a couple of years ago she would have gone out with friends every now and then to alleviate stress, but not so much anymore. “Even though we are all lucky enough to have pretty good jobs, most of us still can’t afford to go out and enjoy ourselves. We're working hard to cover the work of those who got laid off, and when you can’t relieve stress by having fun, it all builds up. It’s really hard."

Still, she finds ways to cope. She has started to learn to bake items from scratch at home. This is cheaper and healthier than buying processed foods. 

“Sharing my baking with my friends is a great cheap way to spend time together. It really helps me stay positive, and it helps us all financially, and with our health,” she said.

Putting a positive spin on things is important, Parr says. “I don’t let myself get down, because I know that will only make my health worse. Stress makes you sick, and being sick makes you stressed. So you have to do what you can to keep your spirits up.”

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