Is Job Stress Making You Sick?

Special Report

stressed woman with a headache
stressed woman with a headache
(Image credit: Suprijono Suharjoto)

Stress from work can be just as hard on your health as smoking cigarettes. If you feel like you're under constant pressure to handle too much work in too little time, you need to read this special report.

Daily Pressures

With downsizing and a recession, on-the-job stress has reached near-epidemic proportions in the U.S.: In a recent survey, about 46 percent of workers said they're feeling too much pressure at work. "People are putting in long hours, taking work home and giving up much-needed vacation time," says Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D., author of Chained to the Desk. "Many of us are so busy we don't even eat lunch anymore." Our success-addicted culture may make you think stress is all in a day's work, but that daily pressure may be harming your health. "Chronic stress has seriously damaging effects," says Naomi Swanson, Ph.D., a Cincinnati-based researcher with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. "If your job stresses you out, your natural defenses are constantly on high alert." Stress hormones, like cortisol, flood your body, and the buildup may have a wear-and-tear effect.

Wear and tear goes deeper than feeling run-down. A high-pressure job can actually double your risk of a heart attack, and a recent study reveals that chronic work stress can be just as bad on your mental and physical well-being as smoking and not exercising. Even working in a noisy office can cause stress hormones to rise to unhealthy levels.

Fortunately, your body goes through layers of warning signs before physical damages set in. If you feel constantly on edge, that in itself is your body telling you that you need to take a break -- whether a 10-minute walk or a two-week vacation. Left unreleased, that stress buildup can turn to anxiety and depression, making it harder to focus and eventually disturbing the sleep cycles you need to stay refreshed. Sleeplessness is often the first physical symptom of an overstressed life.

woman at desk stressed

(Image credit: pidjoe)

The Breaking Point But many of us push past those mental and physical warning signs. "High achievers are the very type of people who think they can handle these feelings on their own," says Dr. Robinson. "They often don't ask for help until their stress snowballs and turns physical -- in the form of headaches, acne or indigestion." Constant stress will attack where the body is most vulnerable, he adds, which explains why some people come down with repeated colds and flus (signs of a weak respiratory tract), and others get clobbered with stomachaches and ulcers (meaning the gastrointestinal system is weakest).

If prolonged stress goes untreated, over time it can make your hair fall out, your joints ache and even stop your period. It can also lead to alcoholism, severe depression and hypertension. Eventually, chronic stress will even strip away your ability to enjoy time off: A recent study shows that people who juggle large workloads and feel overly responsible are the most likely to be plagued by headaches, muscle pain, fatigue and more when they're out of the office.

"Everybody has a breaking point," says Dr. Robinson. The goal is to realize you've hit yours long before physical symptoms set in. So listen to your body when it's tired or anxious, and commit yourself to taking breaks when those signals go off. Read on for more tips on how to get work stress under control.