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Cease and De-Stress

Studies suggest that lack of career control may cause more stress than long hours or work/life imbalance

It’s the caffeine of the new economy. The surge that propels us into 12-hour work days and condensed family experiences. It’s stress, and it’s never been more prevalent or more perturbing.

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As the tight-rope walk between work and life becomes more wobbly and exhausting, and as the buzz of cell phones and Palm Pilots grows louder around us, more and more participants in the new economy are confusing a strong work ethic with an unhealthy stress level. Amid the thrill and trill of business today, it seems we have learned to ignore or forget the warnings that stress is deadly — that our motivating force is neither healthy nor built to last.

In the short term, stress can cause fatigue and irritability. In the long run, it can aggravate heart problems, raise blood pressure, and lower immune systems. Forty-three percent of all Americans suffer from stress-related health problems, according to the American Institute of Stress. And doctors at East Tennessee State University have shown that mental stress can double or even triple the chance of death for individuals already at risk for heart disease.

The best known side effect of stress, heart disease is only one symptom of working and worrying too much. Doctors at the State University of New York at Stony Brook have linked stress to prostate cancer, and researchers at Carnegie Mellon University has shown that people under stress are more likely to develop infections.

But contrary to popular belief, long days and great responsibility do not necessarily translate into high levels of stress. According to Dr. Gary Bennett of the Duke University Medical Center, stress is most likely to manifest in people who don’t feel they command control over their career. “There is a perception that if you work excessively, you are at risk for a large number of negative health outcomes,” Bennett says. “But in our study, additional health risks were limited to people with little control over their jobs.”

According to Bennett’s findings, people with Type A personalities aren’t necessarily the most frayed. In fact, Bennett suggests that middle managers are most likely to suffer the emotional strain of trying to appease a boss, a staff, and personal ambitions.

In his study, presented at a meeting of the Society of Behavioral Medicine this April, Bennett spoke with 74 men about work and life, and then played an audio tape relating a stressful situation. After the recording, Bennett’s researchers tested the patients’ saliva for cortisol — an endocrine secreted when the brain sends out stress signals. Bennett, like various other scientists, found links between perceived control, mental stress, and physical well being.

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A 20-year student of stress-related health risks, Dr. Mark Ketterer of the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit says stress leads to heart attacks nearly as often as high cholesterol, hypertension, or cigarette smoking. “Stress is a mental state,” he says. “The emotions are toxic.”

Every individual responds to stress differently. Therefore, no universal prescription can reduce its effects for everyone, Bennett says. “Say you have two CEOs. One CEO is mobilized to grow his company, but he doesn’t feel he has a high degree of control over the market, over his organization, over his managers or even over his performance. The second CEO looks at the same situation and feels comfortable with his role. These different perceptions may result in two very different health consequences.”

Both Ketterer and Bennett urge doctors to recognize the importance of mental stress on physical health. And they suggest that physicians administer a written stress survey before conducting any expensive cardiac test. The psychological state of the patient may point toward appropriate treatment such as medication or counseling, they say.

In the unceasing new economy, stress management often amounts to sleeping in on Sunday or escaping for two weeks every year. According to Ketterer, these quick-fix strategies simply are not sufficient. “Stress is a lifestyle issue,” he says. “Combating it requires a fundamental change in daily routine.”