A DEMANDING JOB WITH LITTLE CONTROL

Adding to a growing body of evidence that workplace stress is harmful, researchers have linked job strain with higher rates of heart disease and other physical ailments, and are exploring the psychological effects of working long hours or being disenchanted with a job.

In one of the most comprehensive US studies so far of hypertension and job strain -- defined as being in a job with high demands but low control over working conditions -- researchers followed nearly 200 men for three years, and found that those with the most job strain had significantly higher blood pressure than those with the least.

University of Iowa researcher Cynthia A. Bonbright reported finding that “workaholics” -- people who work long hours, whether out of enthusiasm for the job or not -- have more conflicts between work and family, and less satisfaction and purpose in life.  And Georgia State University professor Kenneth B. Matheny reported that workers who say they suffer the most “burnout” are less confident in general and more disinterested in their jobs.

These and other findings -- not to mention downsizing, longer workdays, computerization and other changes that are increasingly affecting workers -- have made job stress a priority for US public health officials.  “One-quarter of the American working population feels their job is a highly stressful force in their life,” said Dr. Linda Rosenstock, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and health, or NIOSH.  “We see it as a major issue”, she said.  In fact, the average American work week is the longest in a generation, at about 47 hours, according to statistics she cited.

Almost any American worker will say they have stress on the job, but researchers have found that the greatest health risks come from a particular type of stressful job -- one that imposes high demands but gives little control over working conditions.

Work-environment specialists have also found that job strain can be reduced, and productivity improved, by lessening demands or giving workers more control over their working conditions.  In other words, they say:  change the way that work is organized; don’t just tell individual workers to use stress management programs, which often have short-lived effects.

Researchers recommend that employers and employees, through anonymous surveys or face-to-face meetings, figure out the sources of stress -- like unrealistic deadlines, lack of support from supervisors and little involvement of workers in decision-making -- and do something concrete to change the way the work gets done. 

For example, in Germany, some workplaces have “health circles”, where employees get together to discuss sources of job stress and come up with solutions, according to Robert A. Karasek, University of Massachusetts.  But, he said, there needs to be a level of trust between employers and employees before such communication can even occur. 

In his hypertension and job strain study, published in October in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, Schnall and colleagues from Cornell University monitored the blood pressure of nearly 200 men for 24-hour periods.  Those who had the highest job strain had on average a systolic blood pressure (the upper number) nearly 12 points higher and a diastolic blood pressure nearly 10 points higher than those with the least strain.

In fact, Schnall said, after looking at all possible causes of high blood pressure, job strain was found to be more important than smoking or salt in the diet.  The only other major factor was being overweight, said Schnall, who is an internist.

Adopted from a story that ran on page C01 of the Boston Globe August 30, 1999, by Dolores Kong. 

VITAMIN C SEEN AS STRESS REDUCER

Megadoses of vitamin C reduced the effects of stress in rats and apparently can help boost the production of an illness-fighting antibody, a researcher says.

 In light of the findings, health agencies should consider increasing the recommended dose of the vitamin in humans, now based on the amount needed to prevent scurvy and anemia, said P. Samuel Campbell, chairman of the biological sciences department at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. (August 24, 1999 / Daily News)

STRESS and MEMORY

A new report suggests that prolonged stress can contribute to memory impairment.

·        researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis randomized 51 volunteers to receive either a placebo, a dose of the stress hormone cortisol mimicking a mildly stress event, or a higher cortisol dose mimicking a major stress event, daily for four days to collect data.

·        found that participants given the higher dose of cortisol scored significantly poorer on tests of memory about a reading they had completed, compared to either placebo or low-dose cortisol recipients.

·        it was further found that all the groups performed equally on memory tests six days after the cortisol treatment was halted, suggesting that high levels of the hormone were responsible for the previous poor memory scores in the high-dose group.

·        authors note that mild stress may also cause some people to produce large amounts of cortisol and that others who are under chronic stress may develop a tolerance to the hormone.

·        the report is in the Archives of General Psychiatry (1999;56:527-533).

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