One of the problems with the term “work stress” is that it can mean just about anything you want it to mean. For instance, nail biting, irritability, loss of libido, anxiety, depression, skin complaints, insomnia, migraine, cancer and heart disease have all been associated with work stress. Myself and a colleague, Dr Fiona Jones unearthed beliefs about work work stress that are widely held however an inspection of the evidence supporting them could lead us to being cautious about some of them and downright skeptical of others.
Work stress causes serious illness.
A close look at the available evidence reveals that this relationship is neither that strong nor that direct. Some studies find a link and some do not. Furthermore, establishing that work stress causes serious illness as opposed to being a response to an illness is difficult to do.
Executive work stress causes coronary heart disease.
The National Heart Foundation of Australia in 2003 rated this belief as having “poor evidence of support”. A UK study measured new cases of angina, severe pain across the chest and diagnosed heart disease in 10, 308 British Civil Servants and found the opposite relationship – the lower ranks were far more likely to be experiencing work stress than their more senior colleagues. Males in the junior ranks of the civil service had three times the risk of coronary mortality over 10 years compared to their senior counterparts.
A comparison of the ultimate executives – the Prime Ministers and Presidents of the UK, USA and Australia who were born and died in the 20th century shows that if they can avoid assassinations in the US or swimming outside the flags in Australia, they tend to live a lot longer than their male counterparts. One of the reasons could be that they have greater support in terms of people to delegate work to and regular medical monitoring.
People respond differently to work stress as a result of differences in personality.
We all know people who complain more readily than others, or who see the glass as half empty more than others. However, when you put such people under pressure, their increase in work stress levels are about the same as more positive-minded people. The pressure effects both types the same way, it is just some people seem to start from a higher base.
Work stress can be “cured” or managed through relaxation and exercise.
Exercise and work stress management courses can lead to improvements in mood and physiological indicators. They may work because you are taking time out of your schedule to relax or are thinking of other things. If so, it may be that a regular walk with the family dog or a hot bath away from the children may be all you need. Alternatively it could be that just having a person taking an interest in your problems helps. Evidence suggests you have to keep doing exercise or relaxing to combat stress, neither activity offers a lasting “cure”.
Work stress can be cured by changing the way we work.
The degree of control over the demands placed upon you is about the best predictor of feeling work stressed. However, increasing an employees’ control at work is not always simple and might involve decreasing another employees’ control. Changing work conditions in this simple way sounds appealing but in practice can be hard to do.
Work stress is increasing.
How can we compare the impact of the telephone ringing all day with the risk of infectious disease or infant mortality (both of which are lower today)? It is a bit like trying to determine whether Bradman’s 1948 Invincibles Cricket Team was better or worse than Ricky Ponting’s current team! It is not to suggest that we experience less work stress today than earlier generations, rather, it seems that comparisons between then and now are highly likely to be unreliable.
Jim Bright is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU and a Partner at Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy.