Wellness

The Scary Way Your Job Could Be Harming Your Health

And surprise, surprise, it's worse for low-paying service jobs.

If you’ve ever complained that your job is "killing you," your hyperbole may not be totally off base.

People with high-stress jobs have a 22 percent higher risk of stroke than those with low-stress jobs, and for women, the contrast is even more stark. Women with high-stress jobs had a 33 percent higher stroke risk compared to those in low-stress roles.

Researchers combined six long-term studies with a total of 138,782 participants and found that, overall, the heightened risk was strongest for ischemic stroke, a type that comprises about 87 percent of all stroke cases and is the result of a fatty deposit blocking a blood vessel to the brain.

Stroke accounts for one in 20 deaths in America each year. It is also the leading cause of serious, long-term disability in the U.S., and annual treatment costs are estimated to be $34 billion. While the study doesn’t explain why there might be a link between high-stress jobs and stroke risk, lead author Dr. Dingli Xu of Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, China, had one guess.

"It's possible that high-stress jobs lead to more unhealthy behaviors, such as poor eating habits, smoking and a lack of exercise,” said Xu in a statement.

To categorize participants into high-stress and low-stress jobs, the researchers evaluated their occupations using two measures: demand, meaning the psychological pressures of the job like time pressure, mental load and coordination responsibilities; and control, which is the employee's potential control over work-based decisions. Then they categori participants' work into four groups: low demand, low control; low demand, high control; high demand, low control; and high demand, high control.

Jobs were categorized as “low stress” if the work was both low demand and high control -- jobs in science and architecture, for instance. Those who had "high stress" jobs were people whose work was both high demand and low control, such as service industry roles like waitress and nursing aide.

Those who fell into other work categories did not have any increased risk of stroke.

“...It is of vital importance for individuals with high [stress] occupations to address lifestyle issues.”

Participants who fell in other work categories ("active" jobs like doctor or teacher, which are a combination of high demand and high control work, for instance) did not have any increased risk of stroke.

Research from the past 20 years has already made the connection between high-stress jobs and heart disease, even after controlling for social class, wrote Dr. Jennifer Majersik of University of Utah Health Care in an editorial that accompanies Xu’s study. She praised Xu’s meta-analysis for being well-conducted, but points out that it didn’t adjust for pre-existing stroke risk factors, or measure levels of inflammation and metabolic dysfunction — variables that could explain the higher stroke risk in certain groups of workers.

Maserjik did say, however, that the analysis gave her enough confidence to tell her patients that their stroke may have been caused by job stress, and engage with them in discussions about how to decrease work stress without quitting their jobs. Xu writes that one way of reducing stroke risk might be to increase access to cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation therapy, as well as help workers quit smoking, eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly.

"Because this meta-analysis revealed that exposure to high [stress] jobs was associated with an increased risk of stroke, especially in women, it is of vital importance for individuals with high [stress] occupations to address lifestyle issues,” Xu concludes in his study.

More and more workplaces (think Silicon Valley) are investing in the types of relaxation therapies and lifestyle perks that might soothe workers and help them become healthier, but most of these interventions are concentrated in industries with relatively little stress compared to service industry workers. Service industry workers are often poorly compensated, lack control over their work environment and don’t have many opportunities for promotion.

The restaurant industry, for instance, employs about 10 million people in the U.S. and is growing. However, the jobs are mostly low-wage, with very few benefits. Waitresses make an average of $10.15 per hour, a figure that already includes tips, and one in six restaurant workers lives below the poverty line, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Nursing aides -- another occupation specifically mentioned in the statement about Xu’s study -- earned about $11.73 per hour in 2012, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is another industry that is projected to grow rapidly because of the growing senior population in the U.S. and the need for long-term care facilities.

No matter what your job, you can reduce the risk of stroke by quitting smoking, eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly. If you're in a high demand, low control job, the need to get healthy is even more urgent and could even save lives, according to studies like Xu's. Here's hoping all of America's employers -- and not just splashy tech offices -- get the message.

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Why it could be stress: Stress can make you feel impulsive (it affects brain areas that keep our behavior in check), but it can also make you feel the opposite way, triggering withdrawal and a loss of confidence that's usually most noticeable at the office, says Susan Evans, PhD, professor of psychology in clinical psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College. "You may find yourself in a meeting where you'd normally voice your opinions without hesitation, but now you're holding back because you're not sure if what you have to say makes sense," she says. A small study in Neurocase found that simply watching a stressful movie for 30 minutes (in this case, Saving Private Ryan) made it harder to complete challenging word-association tasks than viewing more lighthearted fare.

Other possible causes: You guessed it—depression. Withdrawal is a classic symptom, but usually comes with other signs like a loss of interest in your favorite activities, feelings of hopelessness or changes in appetite.

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Why it could be stress: Your immunity takes a hit when you're stressed, research shows, leaving you less capable of fending off whatever virus is making its way through your house or office. In one study, in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, stressed-out people were twice as likely to get sick after being exposed to the common cold. The stressed folks also produced more pro-inflammatory compounds once the virus was in their systems, potentially making sniffles and sneezes worse.

Other possible causes: A consistent lack of sleep can also hamper your immune system. If you're sleeping well, not feeling stressed, but find that your sick-day tally keeps growing, ask your doctor whether a more serious issue could be to blame.

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Why it could be stress: Things may stop moving because your body is diverting energy to more essential organs and systems to help you survive, says David Spiegel, MD, director of the Center on Stress and Health at Stanford School of Medicine. And research suggests that diarrhea may be triggered by the gut's response to a chemical called CRF that the brain releases under stress (your colon is full of CRF receptors).

Other possible causes: Backups can develop from too little fiber (women 50 and younger need 25 grams per day; 51 and up need 21 grams). As for diarrhea, non-stress-related causes include stomach viruses, contaminated food and certain medications. You could also be eating foods that just don't sit well in your stomach, like these 6 items that many people have trouble digesting.

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Why it could be stress: It's rare, and would only happen under extreme stress, but parasomnias (abnormal events like sleepwalking, sleep eating and night terrors) due to stress, can happen, says Rajita Sinha, PhD, director of the Yale Stress Center. Blame a ramped-up, always-on-alert sympathetic nervous system. It flips on your fight-or-flight response, and in the case of incredibly stressed-out folks, it can overpower your body's calming system during sleep, leading to unusual activity, explains Spiegel. "I had one stress patient," he says, "who would get up in the middle of the night when he was traveling for work, get dressed, go down to the hotel lobby and talk to people, and have no recollection of it in the morning."

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Why it could be stress: You may be holding all that tension you're feeling in your neck and shoulders, a very common problem for women, says Holly Phillips, MD, an internist in New York and a medical contributor for CBS News. With major stress, the tension can lead to compression of a particular bundle of nerves that goes into your arm, causing that numbness and tingling. "Leaning over computers and smartphones for hours a day, and being stressed out while we're doing it, can make these muscle issues worse," she explains. "Our ears should be directly over our shoulders, but with this poor posture, they're a few inches forward. It's an awkward and pain-inducing position."

Other possible causes: Carpal tunnel syndrome—it can lead to numbness and tingling, too. Any task that involves flexing your wrist over and over can cause it. Another potential but less common culprit is nerve damage. But the sources can be serious (diabetes, infections, trauma and autoimmune conditions, to name a few), so if you notice these symptoms, call your doctor and make an appointment to get checked out.