Stress can lead to disabilities

By Katy Nielsen

When people say they’re stressed due to work demands, they might be developing physical disabilities more severe than temporary exhaustion. The next time a boss asks someone to take on more work than usual, he or she might be putting that person’s health at risk.

This information is based on data published in March by two separate journals that show stress is prevalent at work, and its effects can lead to long-term disabilities. Many doctors and researchers agree it is time for employers to re-evaluate the amount of pressure they put on employees.

“People are under more stress today in the workplace than I ever recall,” said Gus Crivolio, psychologist from the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “The expectations employers have of employees have really gotten much higher, so people are being asked to do much more than they’ve ever done before.”

According to the American Psychological Association’s March 2011 “Stress in the Workplace” study, 36 percent of employees said they typically feel tense or stressed during the workday.  Additionally, 49 percent of those people said low salary is impacting their stress level.

The survey showed 52 percent of working people feel valued at the job, and two-thirds said they feel motivated to do their best at their work. Nearly one-third indicated they intend to seek a new job within the next year.

Employers have found that if they keep their best employees, the work gets done and they save money, according to Crivolio. This means people are under tremendous pressure to work longer hours and be more efficient. People are not machines, however, and these demands can take a toll on their physical and mental health.

“People are forced to operate under very high standards,” Crivolio said. “There’s much more pressure about setting and reaching goals.”

Regardless of profession, people have to meet goals to make bonuses to get the compensation they think they need. There is high competition for jobs, so if an employee is not efficient, there will be someone else willing to work harder and stay later, Crivolio said.

“It affects the cardiovascular system,” Crivolio said. “Stress affects blood pressure. People don’t eat healthily. They’re eating bad food, and it affects their cholesterol.”

A study titled “Psychological distress and risk of long-term disability: population-based longitudinal study,” published by the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health on March 24, presents evidence mild stress can lead to severe disabilities.

The findings were based on a large-scale study that tracked 17,000 working adults between ages 18 to 64 from 2002 to 2007, randomly chosen from the working population in Stockholm.

During the monitoring period of the study, 649 people started receiving disability benefits. Of that group, 203 received disability benefits for a mental health problem and the rest for physically poor health.

Participants who reported mild stress levels were up to 70 percent more likely to receive benefits, according to the study.

“Going on disability means you cannot function, and there are strict regulations for that,” said Cindy Solomon, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist whose practice is in Highland Park, Ill.

One in four of the physical ailments included high blood pressure, angina and stroke. Close to two-thirds were granted benefits for mental illness, which were all attributed to stress.

In a highly competitive working environment, it is common for people to have some anxiety, but the consequences of that have been underestimated, Solomon said.

Lisa Dreznes, 25, a paralegal at a major Chicago law firm, said she deals with demanding clients, tight deadlines and a constant barrage of phone calls. In the moment, she said she has found that deep breathing helps reduce stress.

“I turn away from my computer,” Dreznes said. “Hopefully the phone won’t be ringing—and I just close my eyes, inhale, hold it for a few seconds and exhale. It helps me keep going with a more realigned sense of self.”

According to Crivolio, sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, drinking too much coffee and using drugs are indirectly related to high levels of stress.

“It affects people’s ability to take care of themselves,” he said.

These habits may affect the immune system and make people more susceptible to illness, Crivolio said. Stress can hurt family life by fostering conflicts, and it can lead to inattentive parenting, according to Crivolio.

Keeping work separate from personal life can be a challenge, according to psychologists. But Dreznes said she has trained herself to do so. The transition between work and home is her time to decompress.

“When you see people on the train with that blank look, those are people getting out of the work mode,” she said. “Our society is so heavily focused on work we lose track of why we’re working. There’s so much more to life. There’s family, friends and taking time for you. People forget that.”