Not much media attention has been given to work-related stress even though it has reached epidemic proportions in the United States. It is one of the biggest stressors we have, however, and can lead to many dis-eases, including cancer.
The Trickle-Down Response of Stress
Chronic stress does its damage mainly through the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is produced by the adrenal glands through signals from the hypothalamus and pituitary (the H-P-A axis). Cortisol levels “spike” when the brain perceives a threat to the body (whether that threat is real or imagined). By kicking in the “fight or flight” response, the brain literally “turns off” many functions of the immune system in order to send energy where it is needed in the moment for survival. After all, what is the point of producing white blood cells when you are being chased by a lion?
Our bodies were meant for spikes in cortisol to be rare, with plenty of time in between for the parasympathetic nervous system or the calming pat of the nerve system to do its job of replenishment and healing. Many people today are in constant stress, however. Several studies make the connection between high cortisol levels and breast cancer directly.
The most well-known is a 2000 study by Stanford University researchers that found that 65% of advanced breast cancer patients had either consistently high or abnormally fluctuating cortisol levels. As expected, they also found that those with high cortisol levels had fewer Natural Killer Cells.
Karoshi in Japan and the United States
In Japan, the term Karoshi means “death by overwork.” It is a result of a cascade of physiological changes caused by the stress response; those who succumb to it literally work themselves to death.
Most victims are healthy, middle-aged men in middle management positions, but an increasing number of female workers are also being affected. Karoshi is characterized by nausea, dizziness, severe headache and stomach ache right before death, but milder symptoms often present themselves months before. The common factor among all Karoshi victims seems to be a high-stress job coupled with 12-hour work days, six to seven days a week. According to Lisa Rankin, MD, 95% of cases result in death within 24 hours of the onset of severe symptoms.
In 1987, the Japanese Ministry of Labor began collecting statistics on Karoshi. Today they estimate that approximately 10,000 Japanese citizens die each year from the condition, although some analysts claim that the number is much more.
There is no Karoshi designation in the United States, but according to statistics from the International Labor Organization, the U.S. far exceeds Japan when it comes to work stress.
While close to 140 countries mandate paid vacation time for workers overall, the U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that does not. A study by Oxford Health Plans found that 1 in 5 Americans come to work even if they are injured or ill. A John Hopkins University study reviewed information on women over 20 years found that those who vacationed once every 6 years or less were eight times more likely to develop coronary heart disease than women who vacationed two times a year.
The phenomenon of overwork is not just isolated to Japan and the US. A fourth of British workers do not take all of their vacation time, and many French workers do not as well.
How to tell if you are stressed at work or working too much
The information age is literally making work-a-holics out of all of us. Especially if you are in a high-stress profession, such as medicine, education or social service (including full time child rearing), the propensity to overwork may be intensified. Your body will always give you warning signs that it is time to slow down, however.
Take note if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms at work:
If work is taking its toll on your health, take the time to reflect on your situation. Do you feel inspired or at least content each day for the most part? If you are under chronic stress, what (or who) is the main cause of it at work? Then take action by identifying three small things you can TODAY to lower your stress level. Examples may include taking a one-minute “time out” break when you need it, taking a short walk on your lunch break, or remembering to breathe every time you go in and out of your office. As you slow down at work, ideas for larger ways you can lower stress will inevitably present themselves. Remember that your body’s main objective in everything it does is for the ultimate goal of balance and healing.