Are you thinking: Work=Stress=Worse Health? If you’re saying yes, you’re not alone. In fact, I’ve found that not only people with chronic illness think this, many “healthy” people think it, too.
The reality is that working when you’re unwell is difficult. Even more so when you’re symptomatic with unpredictable, waxing and waning illness. It’s no surprise that people with disabling symptoms want to opt out of the workforce.
But it is very unfortunate. There’s solid research that shows that continuing to work promotes better health outcomes. It’s my personal experience — and that of many of my clients — that continuing to work, in whatever way you can, promotes a more satisfying life.
But can you get past the immediate challenges – – the demeaning boss, difficult co-worker, angry customers, bad environment – – and think long term? If you’re struggling, don’t give up easily. A good coach can help you learn new ways to approach these challenges. But if that’s not an option for you, I came across some concrete ideas that you can put into action immediately.
I learned about this from Alexandra Levit, in her wonderful blog, “Water Cooler Wisdom”. According to the US News & World Report, research shows that chronic stress increases weight gain and obesity. This article offers concrete suggestions to address this. Here are the 10 points in italics and I’ve included my own thoughts.
- Stop eating at your desk: According to the Royal Society of Chemistry, workers who sit at dirty desks may be typing on keyboards and touching spaces that have mouse droppings. Get those infested fingers near your mouth and there’s a good chance you’ll get sick. (Reaching past my keyboard to the oatmeal, I’m thinking, mouse droppings? Don’t we convince ourselves we have to do this? But it can’t be good for anyone – you eat more quickly, probably don’t digest as well and can easily eat food that isn’t as good for you.)
- Add plants to your area: A Washington State University study measured the effects of indoor plants on students performing a slightly stressful computer-based task in a university computer lab. When researchers decorated the lab with indoor plants, they found that their subjects’ reactions were 12 percent quicker on the task, and their systolic blood pressure fell. The students also reported that they felt more attentive when the plants were in the room. (I always had plants in offices — even cubicles with no light. I felt much more connected to the space. My brother grows orchids in his office! Family pics are good for those without green thumbs but I have a feeling that there’s something in the growing that’s key. )
- Improve your posture: Bad posture can cause everything from eye strain to lower back pain. A study last year by researchers from the Teesside University School of Health and Social Care in England found that sitting on a stability ball does not provide any benefit to seating posture over sitting on the standard desk chair. A different study on the proper position of your desk chair found that sitting up straight is not ideal—rather, leaning your chair back at an 135 degree angle is best. (When my boss wouldn’t spend money for a support chair, I bought it myself . It was worth the investment and I took it when I left. Recently, when I was having severe arm and back pain, I hired an occupational therapist to evaluate and make suggestions for my home office. It helped immensely!)
- Find a way to reduce work pressure: It’s easier said than done, but it could save your life. Women in high-pressure jobs are at a higher risk of heart disease. A 15-year Danish study tracked the health of 12,116 nurses ages 45 to 64 in 1993. Those who reported work pressures as being a little too high were 25 percent more likely to have ischaemic heart disease, and those who felt the pressures were much too high were 50 percent more likely to have ischaemic heart disease. Accounting for other lifestyle factors only slightly reduced the risk. Work pressure appears to have the greatest health effects on younger nurses. (This seems ominous for the nursing profession! But I think this is where strategic thinking that I often write about comes into play. There isn’t a one size fits all stress reducing tip. It takes time and patience to learn to manage stress – internal and external).
- Reduce overtime as much as possible: Working three to four hours of overtime a day is bad for your heart, according to a study published on behalf of the European Society of Cardiology. Although some Americans don’t have the option of reducing their working hours—they’ve got to put food on the table, or finish a project—research shows that overtime is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease , independent of other factors. (I wonder how many cardiologist work 8 hour days? I also wonder whom they studied. Would this be as true for people who love their work? I take the message to be that too much work and too little personal time isn’t good for our health.)
- Exercise at lunch: A recent survey by CareerBuilder found that 44 percent of workers report having gained weight while at their current jobs. It lists reasons that make sense: Sitting at a desk nearly all day; stress. Working out during a lunch hour can make a significant difference—although just 11 percent of women and 8 percent of men make that choice. (Hmm, what constitutes “working out”? Does it include walking? And what about working out before or after work? For those who can’t do that, lunch hour — if you have one! — is a perfect time. Even if you can’t get to a gym, walking is terrific. Even in bad weather. I had a client who walked the halls in his office building, including the stairs, building up to 30 minutes/day – it helped his energy level if not the MS fatigue. )
- Don’t de-stress with TV at night: Much in the way that adding healthy foods to your diet is only one piece of nutritional health and must be accompanied by reducing unhealthy foods, adding exercise to your lifestyle is only one piece of physical health. You must also reduce the amount of sitting, which is no easy move for someone with a desk job. The authors of a recent editorial for the British Journal of Sports Medicine argue that people should be encouraged not only to workout, but also to stay moving—taking the stairs instead of the elevator or taking a five minute break while doing sedentary work, for example. Too many people work at a desk all day and then head home to watch TV at night. In fact, a study of Australian adults found that a one-hour increase in TV watching increased the prevalence of metabolic syndrome in women by 26 percent—regardless of the amount of exercise those women performed. (Oops- I’m reminding myself as I write this to stand up from my desk. I’m lucky if I remember once an hour- a timer helps. If you don’t have an office you can stretch in, try the bathroom! And what about walking on a treadmill while you watch tv at night or even pacing in the room for 20 to 30 minutes? I’ve done that when nothing else is available.)
- Request a flexible work arrangement: In some parts of the world, lawmakers have jumped into the debate over flexible work arrangements. Parents with young kids also have a statutory right to ask for flexible work arrangements in the U.K. The benefits of a controllable work schedule are great, even for non-parents. A recent Cochrane review of 10 studies found that control over one’s own work hours yielded health benefits in areas such as blood pressure and sleep. (We’re a long way from flexible work being a law in the U.S. but when it happens, I hope it includes people with chronic illness. That’s THE key factor.)
- Keep a clean desk: A 2004 study by NEC-Mitsubishi coined a phrase for this: “irritable desk syndrome. Researchers determined that cluttered desks were among the workplace factors making employees ill. Some 2,000 workers were surveyed and 45 percent reported that it was possible to fix the mess of clutter and paper on their desks that increased their stress at work. (No comment. As someone who has always had a neat desk while living with illness, I don’t have anything to say on this).
- Work on your relationship with your boss: You might not think that nurturing a better relationship with your manager would have much impact on your physical health, but it does. For one thing, when advocating for a lighter workload, a more flexible schedule, or less overtime, you’ll have a better shot getting what you want if your boss is in your corner. Also, there’s evidence that workers who feel they have good bosses appear to have a lower risk of heart disease. (YES! I think this is the most valuable point here. I was deeply unhappy and anxious when I worked for bosses with whom I didn’t get along. It’s especially true when you’re managing unpredictable illness. I wish I’d had help — I know I’d have done things differently. For some this comes easy. For others it’s a skill to learn. But most importantly, don’t wait for the relationship to go south. Get help – – from a mentor, a coach, a friend — and work on making it work. )
What would you add to this list – or delete?