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Work Stress…When Does it Become Unhealthy?

March 30, 2021

As an Occupational Medicine physician, I’ve seen workers for various injuries such as low back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, shoulder pain, etc. There are a handful that claim stress as an injury. However, stress is the underlying cause or a major obstacle in their recovery in a significant portion of patients.

Everyone has stress, right? Stress can be good depending on how much you get. You heard about the stress and performance graph? Up to a certain level of stress, there is actually increased performance. However, when you reach a certain threshold of stress, performance drops. That’s your breaking point, that feeling of being burnt out. And that breaking point is different for everyone. Now stress at the workplace is similar to stress outside of work but also very different. Stress at the workplace can be due to what is called the job reward imbalance. If there is a perception that a worker does not have control at work and has increased demand placed on him/herself, then there is decreased satisfaction and increased stress.

Stress at work can impact your work performance but it does not stop there. Many people bring stress back home. They release it onto their family members, pets, and friends. It can destroy marriages and relationships with their children.

Some industries have created ways to combat stress in the workplace. Take Google for example. Among many of the healthy concepts they have promoted, treadmill desks are an effective form of increasing productivity. You have a worker exercising which stimulates endorphins and promotes a healthy lifestyle. That worker can start creating healthy habits at work that he/she can take back home.

But what about the rest of us? I don’t have a treadmill desk at my clinic, though I do not sit at a desk for long periods of time. There are many ways to reduce stress even at work but first I would like to encourage everyone regardless of occupation to take the first step in identifying your stressors and ask yourselves the following questions:

  1. Do I feel tense the day/night before going to work?
  2. How do I spend my time during my breaks/lunch?
  3. Do I have adequate time to have a healthy lunch? Healthy being the optimal word. A quick fast food run during your 10-minute break isn’t the best way to fuel yourself.
  4. Do I have the opportunity to have a healthy breakfast before work?
  5. How is my relationship with my boss/supervisor? Do I feel valued by my boss/supervisor?
  6. How is my relationship with coworkers?
  7. Do I take work home, and if I do, what impact does it have on my family or my social life?
  8. Does my family feel they get enough quality time with me?

Answering these questions will empower you to think about your level of stress at work and possible resolutions. I look forward to addressing different aspects of these questions and how we can improve the work/life balance we all aspire to in future blogs!

Alya Khan, MD, MS

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