Could Workplace Stress Be as Deadly as Secondhand Smoke?

Workplace stress comparable to secondhand smoke in early death, illness risk

Stress — you know it's bad for you. But just how bad it may be might surprise you.

Researchers from Harvard Business School and Stanford University's Graduate School of Business found that the health consequences of workplace stress may be comparable to those of secondhand cigarette smoke.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exposure to secondhand smoke can up the risk of lung cancer by between 20 and 30 percent. Exposure also causes about 41,000 deaths a year in the US — about 7,000 from lung cancer and 34,000 from heart disease or other illnesses.

This study (a compilation of the findings of 228 other studies) was led by Joel Goh, PhD, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

Dr. Goh and team identified 10 workplace stressors, including overtime hours, job insecurity, shift work, psychological demands, lack of work-life balance and lack of employment choice.

How those stressors affected health outcomes, such as poor self-rated physical and mental health, diagnosed health problems and death, was then measured.

Workplace stress was found to increase the risk of illness by 35 percent, poor health by 50 percent (the same as secondhand smoke exposure) and early death by 20 percent (compared to 15 percent from secondhand smoke).

The most common diseases over-stressed workers faced were heart disease and depression. Over-stressed workers were also more likely to smoke, drink to excess and abuse drugs.

Dr. Goh and team said they hope these findings will spur workplace changes.

"Assuming an employer cares about their employee for benevolent or bottom line reasons, we think this is something many employers haven’t [thought] about," Dr Goh told The Boston Globe. “We’re trying to call attention to the other side [of the equation], which is the effect of managerial practices."

According to these researchers, about half of all employees who work where wellness programs are available don't participate due to their schedules.

"Wellness programs are great at doing what they’re designed to do,” Dr. Goh said. "But they’re targeting [employee behavior], not targeting the cause of stress."

According to author of "Success Under Stress," Sharon Melnick, some ways to reduce workplace stress include eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of rest, doing breathing exercises, scheduling breaks and avoiding interruptions, reports Forbes.

This study was published in the Spring 2015 edition of the journal Behavioral Science & Policy Association.

Funding sources and conflicts of interest were not available at the time of publication.