Labored Thoughts

“It’s true hard work never killed anybody, but I figured, why take the chance?” Ronald Reagan 1987 at Annual Gridiron Dinner

On Labor Day 2000, it seems appropriate to discuss work and health. A celebration to honor the working class was first suggested by either Peter J. McGuire or Matthew McGuire in 1882. Both of these men were important figures in the Central Labor Union in New York City. The first Labor Day Holiday was celebrated on September 5, 1882; and in 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill making Labor Day a national holiday. On a broad scale, this day is a tribute to all American workers and their contributions to the prosperity and well-being of this country. On a personal level, Labor Day can also be a time to reflect on one’s own occupation and how it effects individual well-being.

On average, 60% of our waking hours are spent at work. With such a time commitment, it’s important to strive for a safe and satisfying work environment. A sense of achievement, challenge, and recognition for a job well done are important to all of us. Unfortunately, a study by Northwestern National Life concluded that one-fourth of employees view their jobs as the number one stressor in their lives. Work place hazards may be environmental (such as noise,air pollutants, crowding, and unsafe physical environments) or psychological stressors such as poor relationships with coworkers, conflicting job expectations, and mismatching of one’s interests and aptitudes with work responsibilities. In the short term, job stress can lead to irritability, tense muscles, and elevated pulse and blood pressure. Long term job stress can generate hypertension, increased incidence of cardiovascular disease, increased risk of back and upper-extremity musculoskeletal disorders, increased rates of mental health problems, and perhaps even increased likelihood of work place injuries by interfering with safe work practices. Immune systems also weaken in chronically stressful situations, and such compromise leads to more frequent colds and viral illnesses. Extrapolating from this knowledge, one can intimate that chronic stress may be a factor in the development of chronic disease states as well. . . perhaps even cancer. Heard enough scary news? Well, there are some positive aspects of our jobs working for quite a few of us as well.

For many, occupations provide a stimulus for intellectual growth and opportunity for diverse social interaction. Interestingly, for a substantial number of people in our fast-paced, electronically-linked work environment, job stress is not considered a major negative factor. In a USA Today 5-09-2000 “Snapshot”, the Wirthlin Report cited that most workers are satisfied with their jobs (43% “somewhat,” 46% “very”) while only one in three say their jobs are low stress. Additionally, Professor Howard Weiss (an organizational psychologist at Purdue University) has found that daily events drive the emotional states of employees and thus affect their daily behavior and overall job satisfaction. Statistics reveal that a person’s job satisfaction has little effect on work behaviors such as job performance, absenteeism, or turnover–definitely counter intuitive findings to many managers. Most ‘job satisfaction’ surveys tend to give only a momentary snap shot of occupational morale rather than a true representation of overall contentment. Such information can be used to foster more positive work environments throughout the year rather than relying on surveys to effect change.

So, on this Labor Day, if you are feeling job stress and work dissatisfaction to a great degree, remember there are behavioral changes you can make to improve the situation. Try to minimize consumption of caffeine, chocolate and sugars; caffeine can make you more irritable. After a brief ‘sugar high’, sweets can cause a significant drop in energy as the body’s insulin overcompensates. Remember to communicate your concerns to employers and coworkers; work conflicts should be small situations to overcome rather than major life events. Make every effort to match your own personality, interests, and coping style with your specific job responsibilities. And, remember that “Time Outs”(see Insight 2-28-2000)–both brief and more extended–are important. “Every now and then go away, have a little relaxation, for when you come back to your work your judgement will be surer. Go some distance away because then the work appears smaller and more of it can be taken in at a glance and a lack of harmony and proportion is more readily seen.” Leonardo Da Vinci. Finally, celebrate the positives of your job. When we direct our energies in a constructive and creative manner, we benefit not only ourselves individually but also our businesses generally. More than a working hypothesis, these suggestions just might enhance your outlook and your performance on the job as well.

“To work–to work! It is such infinite delight to know that we still have the best things to do.” Katherine Mansfield 1888–1923

Stephen L. Hines, M.D.
September 2000