Monday, April 5, 2010

What toll has workplace stress taken on your life?

Since last October, it seems like every time I interview someone they're sick, just getting sick -- or coming off a bout of illness that has lasted weeks. I've heard people cough so hard I thought they would hack up a lung, or sound so congested it sounded like they were holding their nose.

That's why I found it fascinating when I interviewed Dr. Margaret Lewin who told me she and her colleagues were talking about the number of upper respiratory viruses they've seen this last winter. While she noted they have no scientific studies to prove it, their instincts tell them that stress may be partly responsible for the people who have been hit over and over again this last year.

This column for Gannett focuses on the high price many people have paid -- with their health -- for the bad economy and pressure at work, and what we can do about it....

Dr. Margaret Lewin is an internist in New York, and while she sees a variety of ailments on a daily basis, there is one thing that all of her patients have in common these days: stress.

“Everyone who walks in my office is stressed,” says Lewin, medical director of Cinergy Health. “There’s a lot of things worrying them these days.”

From the bad economy to unemployment to work overload, Lewin says her patients are experiencing physical symptoms of their stress, affecting everything from their sleep to their appetites to their relationships.

“Stress is often expressed according to a person’s hardwiring. So, if someone is wired tightly normally, they’re going to get even more anxious when there’s stress. Other people just slow down so much that they have trouble staying awake,” she says.

According to a survey by Regus Group of 11,000 companies worldwide, 58 percent of American employees report that stress levels have increased greatly. The sources of that stress? About 39 percent say it’s because of their employer’s greater focus on profitability, while nearly 39 percent report it’s because they fear losing their jobs – or the employer going under.

Employees are also under increasing pressure because they’re doing the jobs of laid-off co-workers – but many have had their wages and benefits cut as companies trim expenses. A Conference Board survey of 5,000 U.S. households found that only 45 percent of respondents were satisfied with their jobs, a drop from the 61 percent in 1987, when the survey was first conducted.

At the same time, a new Towers Watson survey of more than 20,000 employees found that 44 percent of employees have no plans to leave their jobs – even if there is no chance for advancement or increased pay – because they value stability more.

All of those pressures have led to people struggling to cope with the new workplace demands – and the physical toll is evident to doctors like Lewin.

“A lot of people tell me they’re so tired they can’t function. They can’t sleep. They’ve gained 10 pounds because they’re turning to comfort food. They’ve quit working out because they don’t have time,” she says. “People are just really out of their comfort zones.”

Lewin says there are a number of ways that people can cope better with their workplace stress, such as:

  • Scheduling a check-up. “You first must check to see that there’s nothing medical behind your symptoms,” she says. “Everything from your thyroid to your blood sugar levels can cause problems.”
  • Stick to the basics. The advice of eating well, exercising more and getting plenty of rest still works the best. “If you’re skipping meals and eating junk food and then just quit working out, you’re going to feel like you’ve been hit with a club,” Lewin says.

Lewin advises if you’re having trouble sleeping to see a doctor, since over-the-counter sleep aids can stay in your system too long and cause daytime sluggishness. “Then you try to get going with caffeine in the morning, and you crash in the afternoon. Then you use more caffeine, and then you can’t sleep again that night and have to take something to help you sleep. It’s a vicious cycle,” she says. “And the worst idea is to use alcohol to sleep. That’s the most negative thing you can do.”

  • Write it down. “Put your schedule on a piece of paper, then prioritize what’s really important. Make sure you put time in that schedule for yourself, and for times when unexpected things happen,” she says. “Leave some room so that you feel you can breathe.”
  • Talk to someone. “Depression can be paralyzing,” Lewin says. “You may feel even more hopeless because when you’re not feeling well, you know there is no one at work to cover for you” because so many staffs have been cut. “A lot of people talk to me about how terrified they are that they’ll lose their jobs. Find someone to talk to about how you’re feeling,” she says.
What are some ways you handle stress?

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