Americans are workaholics. Most of us work 40+ hours a week, bring work home on the weekends and take as little as 2-4 weeks of vacation including holidays. As cleverly addressed in an essay in the New Yorker in 2006, life in Europe is quite different; 7-8 weeks of vacation time is the norm. Europeans seem to value leisure more whereas Americans tend to emphasize earning and spending. Much has been written about how certain habits at work can harm our overall health. In US News and World Report in July, seven habits that were considered to be health harmful were examined. Habits identified included eating at your desk, lack of exercise, all night work sessions just to name a few. Now add excessive workplace stress to the list.
I was listening to NPR this weekend and was intrigued by a story from the Lancet on the relationship of on the job stress and increased risk of heart attack. In this study, a meta analysis from 13 European cohort studies was performed and included nearly 200 thousand patients. The study demonstrated a 23% increase in risk for cardiovascular events in patients whose jobs were considered stressful as compared to those who did not report workplace pressure. Based on this report, reducing stress in the workplace could potentially reduce heart attacks by 3-4%. Certainly, this potential for reduction is not really comparable to the 20-30% reduction in events that is conferred by smoking cessation but it is not insignificant.
Traditionally, stress has been thought to contribute to cardiovascular events by increasing sympathetic tone and causing the abundant release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These stress hormones may cause increased lipid (cholesterol) levels, increased tendencies for blood to clot and they may also promote the formation of atherosclerotic plaques in the arteries with subsequent vascular damage. Blood pressure and heart rate are all increased in this state, all leading to increased demands by the heart and potential for ischemia (lack of blood flow to the heart muscle). Stress management techniques have been studied in the past and have been shown to result in decreased cardiovascular events. A survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2011 found that 36% of workers included in the study had experienced stress on the job. Interestingly, the study participants cited lack of opportunities for advancement (43%), heavy workload (43%) unrealistic job expectations (40%) and long hours (39% ) as major stressors at work.
Much of the American worker’s self worth is measured by elite job titles, driving luxury cars and owning a large home in a prestigious community. In Europe, the worker measures himself by having the ability to take extended holidays with friends and family. In fact, US workers often fail to take allotted vacation time. This may be due to the fear of losing traction towards advancement in the workplace or out of fear of being replaced by co-workers who did not take time away. The US certainly remains the land of opportunity but many US workers have lost sight of the real American dream–the freedom to use our time as we see fit. To enjoy family, friends and the lives we have worked so hard to build.
Much can be learned from the value that the Europeans place on leisure. These workers make time away with family a priority. Some studies of worker efficiency and productivity have shown superior performance and less burnout and depression in employees who take time for vacation and leisure. Coronary artery disease and sudden cardiac death are one of the leading causes of death in the US today (behind all types of cancers combined). Certainly we can impact disease by eliminating smoking, eating well and exercising but we can also reduce events through better management of workplace stress. Take time for family. Take time to relax. Return to work refreshed, re-energized and renewed. Although workplace stress is an unavoidable reality in the US today, we must find ways mitigate stressors and this will ultimately improve both our productivity and overall quality of life.