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Job Stress, Health, And Unexpected Consequences: How Stress-Caused Health Problems Can Kill Your Career

Aug 19, 2008
In Japan they have a word for what happens when you work too much, so much until you fall over dead: Karoshi, which means death by overwork. But even in Japan, most people don't usually die from working too much - they just get sick and suffer. And suffering, year after year, can be a prescription for career disaster...

Job stress results when we work too much or under bad circumstances, and it's not news to anyone that such stress can make us sick. But there's a wrinkle that flies under the radar in the stress and health discussion: Not only can an excessively stressful career make us sick, but once we get sick, our lower energy levels affect the quality and quantity of the work we can do, and sooner or later, our impaired performance can in turn ruin our careers.

Unfortunately, excess stress on a daily basis is something all too familiar to lots of people. And for all too many, it has already resulted in an assortment of health problems, ranging from the merely annoying, embarrassing, and slightly painful, such as cold sores, acne, neck pain, headaches, and hair loss, all the way to obesity, heart attacks, and even death.

Sometimes things can get so bad, that karoshi may seem like a merciful way out. But let's focus on the kinds of health consequences that result from stress that doesn't quite kill you and on the impact they can have on your career in turn. If the stress is ongoing, and it usually is, you may well end up suffering for years, alive but not so well.

We know that when the body experiences stress, it releases adrenalin and cortisol as part of our primitive fight-or-flight response. These important hormones help increase the oxygen level in the blood and boost the sugar in the blood - preparing us to either flee or fight.

That reaction may have been useful in an era where fighting or fleeing would have been considered reasonable options. But if your boss is yelling at you, neither bonking him on the kisser nor running away screaming qualifies as appropriate behavior. Instead, there you are, a sitting duck, flooded with stress hormones that have no place to go and serve no purpose except wreak havoc on your well-being.

What havoc? For example, the immune system is suppressed or damaged, which compromises your body's ability to resist infection. So you're the first to catch the office cold and the last to recover from it. And then there are a number of chronic health conditions are either caused or made worse by stress, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, migraine headaches, and heart disease. Some research suggests that stress can even cause cancer - or push the body over that critical hurdle where our immune system is just no longer strong enough to fight it off.

There are also slightly less obvious conditions, less obvious at least to the outside observer: depression, fibromyalgia, insomnia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and adrenal burnout.

They all have in common that they'll sap your energy and make it very difficult to get much work done. Come performance review, you'll have some explaining to do. And if anything, that'll make your stress-levels even worse.

Can you see where this is heading? Stress may hurt your body, but it will also hurt your career if you don't manage to get on top of it. Ratcheting down your stress levels has got to be a top priority, because it may not only cost you your health but your job as well. And then, what will you do for health insurance?
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