Is work stress making you ill?

by RNZ / 11 January, 2018

Has the return to work left you feeling anxious or depressed? Here's some tips that might help. Photo / Getty Images

Back at work and unhappy about it? Here are some tips on how to cope.

Connecting with people face-to-face and mixing up your journey to work can help combat job-related stress, says London GP Ellie Cannon, the author of Is Your Job Making You Ill?

While muscular and joint problems, headaches and repetitive strain are an expected part of certain jobs, Cannon's book looks at illnesses people perhaps don't expect from their jobs – those related to stress.

Although the World Health Organisation has confirmed stress is now a global epidemic, it has no diagnostic criteria and is not a recognised medical or psychiatric illness.

"There are no treatment guidelines, there is no advice on what is the best therapy."

Yet stress can lead to anxiety, depression and physical problems such as insomnia, which is in turn associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 Diabetes, Cannon says.

"If you have insomnia night after night after night you are building up worsening mental health problems with anxiety and stress levels and not being able to concentrate … there is a reason sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture."

The stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline affect how our bodies fight infection, so if you always have coughs and colds coming and going, it tends to be because you're stressed and your immune system is low, Cannon says.

The reason people often get sick as soon as they take time off is the body's way of protecting itself, she says.

"When you relax and those cortisol levels go a bit higher than before, you can be susceptible to infection. Your body knows what it's doing. It knows to keep you well and going when you need and it knows to let you get ill at a good time. That's evolution, that is."

Job-related sickness is usually connected to workload – too tight deadlines or too much responsibility – but Cannon doesn't see the out-of-balance work culture changing anytime soon.

While employers should be involved in their workers' wellbeing, we all need to look after ourselves, she says.

"It's going to be up to us as individuals to make sure we're asking for what we're allowed to ask from our employers – whether it's changes in hours or changes in the set-up of your job."

Dr Ellie Cannon Photo: supplied

Cannon says she wrote the book to help people maintain their job and income while improving health problems, not for "snowflake millennials who can't cope with jobs that people have always coped with".

Busy high-achieving people can fall into a trap of thinking work-life balance isn't something they need to worry about.

"Work becomes all-consuming and it means you're not concentrating on those other protective aspects of your life: your relationships, your exercise, your sleep. It might be fine for a while, but it's very easy for that all to fall apart."

Small, seemingly trivial changes to your diet and commute can have a big impact on your resilience and ability to cope with stress, she says.

"If life is going well, it doesn't really matter if you run out the door in the morning trying to catch a train while slurping a coffee from a takeaway cup and you miss the train and you have to go to work late… it doesn't really matter if you're feeling well.

"But if you're feeling stressed from your job and you arrive at work having had not a good breakfast and too much coffee and having to run down the road, you're arriving at a stressful job already stressed out.

"It can be very useful to step back and say 'Well, actually, could I be doing this a different way? Even one day a week could you walk for 15 minutes first then get the train a bit later? Or could you get up half an hour earlier so you're actually not on the rush-hour train – get into work half an hour earlier and having breakfast there? Are there ways of swapping things around that will not actually have any impact on the money you spend or what time you're getting to work but could have a huge impact on your stress levels when you get there?"

Meaningful social interaction – whether with a colleague, a supportive partner or a good friend – also helps people cope with stress.

Many of us connect online now rather than nurturing important relationships face-to-face, and that's not good for our health, Cannon says.

She is a fan of social media, but says it's making a big contribution to poor work-life balance and possibly poorer relationships.

"Having a lunch break where you sit down and offload with a colleague or you chat about the weather rather than scrolling through your phone is a far better way to relieve stress … We really have to go back to basics and prioritise those really fundamental human interactions."

She encourages people to make time to connect face-to-face with family, friends and coworkers – and also watch their screen use.

"Rather than having the typical diet and exercise January resolutions that people have, I think it would be really useful for people to have relationship resolutions – including their relationship with technology and social media."

And if you think unemployment must be the answer to good health, not so fast. Studies have shown not working is not good for your physical or mental health, Cannon says.

She discourages people from taking chunks of time off work if it can be avoided.

"It's very difficult, often, to go back. And actually even the routine of a job that does not feel great is better than no routine at all."

This article was originally published by RNZ.

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