Stress at Work Is Killing Us

Whether home or at work, at school, shopping, or driving, there’s no shortage of things to stress us out. Our ability to cope, get along with others, get things done efficiently, and be reasonable often hinges on how we manage that stress. Those coping mechanisms have a lot to do with how well our days go and how we get along with family and friends. But when it comes to work, there’s a greater price to pay. Not managing stress effectively costs employers billions of dollars annually in healthcare-related expenses, lost-work hours, and reduced productivity due to illness, depression, accidents, turnover, and worker burnout.

According to research by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Center for Organizational Excellence, more than one-third (35%) of American workers experience chronic work stress, with low salaries, lack of opportunities for advancement, and heavy workloads topping the list of contributing factors. Stress in the workplace, researchers found, manifests itself in increased absenteeism and presenteeism (coming to work, but not achieving expectations, or working to potential), lower productivity, and increased service errors.

Stress also is a contributor to high blood pressure and other diseases. When we’re frustrated, depressed, or under tremendous pressure at work or at home, we tend to eat poorly, not exercise, and otherwise tax our bodies. Links have been established between stress and our body’s production of excess cholesterol. Stress also interferes with our normal sleep, which causes fatigue and makes us irritable and more susceptible to illness. When unchecked, stress interferes with our general quality of life, and can affect our relationships, productivity, customer service, teamwork, safety, and quality.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), work-related stress is the physical and emotional damage that occurs due to a mismatch between work requirements and the resources, needs, and capabilities of workers. Currently, 40% of American workers say that their jobs are very or extremely stressful. At the same time, 26% of employees say they are very often burned out, or stressed at the workplace. Twenty-nine percent of workers say that their jobs are extremely stressful, and 25% report that their jobs are the leading causes of stress in their lives.

How is that affecting them physically? CDC statistics say that seven out of 10 workers say they experience stress-related psychological symptoms regularly, and close to eight out of 10 employees regularly encounter physical symptoms associated with stress. To avoid workplace stress, 60% of 26,000 U.S. workers surveyed said they would opt for a fresh career start. This dissatisfaction on the job is costing American employers $300 billion annually on employee healthcare and employee absence costs.

Why so much workplace stress?

If you’ve ever worked for or with other people, you probably can answer this question yourself.

Workload accounts for 46% of all workplace stress incidents, and “people issues” account for 28% of stress at work problems. Additionally, juggling work/personal life challenges accounts for 20% of stress incidents reported by American workers, while lack of job security is the fourth-leading cause of stress at the workplace.

The symptoms of worrying, anxiety, and stress at work result in back pain, fatigue, stomach ailments, headaches, teeth grinding, and changes in sex drive. It reduces immunity to disease, and leaves workers unable to sleep well at night due to worrying about their jobs. And it’s costing employers an estimated $10 billion annually in productivity losses alone.

All in all, it sounds pretty dire. Yet we have to work, we have to get along with our co-workers, bosses, and customers, and we have to remain focused on quality, service, and productivity. So how can employers help address the issues that cause this detrimental behavior and side effects, and improve outcomes?

Organizations that have implemented measures to address burnout have a staff turnover rate of just 6%, which is low compared to the national average of 38%. Additionally, in progressive-thinking companies, the rate of staff reporting “chronic work stress” stands at 19% compared to the national average of 35%. Employees at the same organizations registered higher job satisfaction scores, meaning they were unlikely to seek greener pastures elsewhere.

Tips for managing workplace stress

Humans are complicated – there are no easy answers or magic bullets. But based on research, an important first step is promoting a healthy work/life balance. Progressive organizations offer telecommuting, paid time off, and flex time perks. Employee recognition strategies including profit-sharing programs, bonuses, and cost-of-living salary raises. Organizing staff retreats, interacting with staff to learn more about their problems, and monitoring job satisfaction helps, as does providing workers with regular career growth and development opportunities.

While the work has to get done and get done on time, fatigue plays an enormous role in reduced workplace productivity. While napping in one’s car is helpful when coping with exhaustion, some employers provide rest or nap lounges with couches, reduced lighting, and soft music. Ensuring that employees get adequate time for stretching, moving around, breaks, and for lunch or dinner is critical.

Additionally, time during the day for recreation – walks, runs, athletics, bicycling, working out – helps people manage stress and keep themselves healthier. That could be as simple as having a fitness room, basketball or volleyball court at the workplace, or encouraging employees to take a walk or go to the gym at times that work best for them and fit within their work requirements.

Bringing in experts on nutrition, fitness, yoga, massage, and other forms of relaxation or wellness education is inexpensive and helpful. And engaging employees in team problem-solving, or creating and empowering recreation, communication, health and wellness, and “fun” committees goes a long way toward improving morale, teamwork and productivity.

Ultimately, we all have to find ways to deal with our own stress, and the stress that accompanies most jobs. But recognizing the signs of worker stress and acknowledging the importance of providing creative and healthy outlets for employees will help reduce some of the factors that are heavily taxing workers and costing employers a fortune, and employees their health.

Oral Cancers Are Largely Preventable

Oral health is not only important to our appearance and sense of well-being, but also to our overall health. Cavities and gum disease may contribute to many serious conditions, such as diabetes and respiratory disease, and untreated cavities can be painful and lead to serious infections. Poor oral health has been linked to sleeping problems, as well as behavioral and developmental problems in children. It also can affect our ability to chew and digest food properly.

But there’s a more insidious nature to poor oral health. While genetics can play a role, lifestyle and poor choices are major contributors to a cancer that kills approximately 10,000 Americans annually. In fact, the American Cancer Society’s latest estimates for 2017 forecast that approximately 50,000 people will get oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer this year.

April is National Oral Cancer Awareness Month. Oropharyngeal cancer is a disease in which malignant (cancer) cells form in the tissues of the oropharynx. The oropharynx is the middle part of the pharynx (throat) behind the mouth. It includes the back one-third of the tongue, soft palate, side and back walls of the throat, and our tonsils. The rest are found in the lips, the minor salivary glands (which often occur in the roof of the mouth), and other sites.

These cancers are more than twice as common in men as in women. The average age of most people diagnosed with these cancers is 62, but they can occur in young people. They are rare in children, but a little more than one-quarter occur in patients younger than 55.

Smoking is a major risk factor for oral and dental disease, including oral cancer. Tobacco smoke (including the smoking of cigars and pipes) is very harmful to gum tissues and other tissues in your mouth. Toxins in smoke can cause oral cancer and also damage the bone around your teeth, a major cause of tooth loss. In fact, smoking and tobacco products that are chewed or held in the mouth are one of the biggest risk factors for gum disease and perhaps the biggest risk factor for oral cancer.

Oral tobacco products (snuff or chewing tobacco) are linked with cancers of the cheek, gums, and inner surface of the lips. Using oral tobacco products for a long time poses an especially high risk. These products also cause gum disease, destruction of the bone sockets around teeth, and tooth loss.

The most common risk factors for oropharyngeal cancer include the following:

  • Being infected with human papillomavirus (HPV) — the number of oropharyngeal cancers linked to HPV infection is increasing annually
  • A history of smoking a pack or more a day for greater than 10 years
  • The use of chewing tobacco, snuff, and other “smokeless” tobacco products
  • Heavy alcohol use
  • A diet low in fruits and vegetables
  • Drinking maté, a stimulant drink common in South America
  • Chewing betel quid, a stimulant commonly used in parts of Asia

Sometimes oropharyngeal cancer does not cause early signs or symptoms, but common signs include a lump in the neck and a sore throat. These and other signs and symptoms may be caused by oropharyngeal cancer or by other conditions. Check with your doctor if you have any of the following:

  • A sore throat that does not go away
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Trouble opening the mouth fully
  • Trouble moving the tongue
  • Weight loss for no known reason
  • Ear pain
  • A lump in the back of the mouth, throat, or neck
  • A change in voice
  • Coughing up blood.

When patients newly diagnosed with oral and oropharyngeal cancers are carefully examined, a small portion will have another cancer in a nearby area such as the larynx (voice box), the esophagus (the tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach), or the lung. Some who are cured of oral or oropharyngeal cancer will develop another cancer later in the lung, mouth, throat, or other nearby areas. For this reason, people with oral and oropharyngeal cancer will need to have follow-up exams for the rest of their lives. They also need to avoid using tobacco and alcohol, which increase the risk for these second cancers.

The good news is that the death rate for these cancers generally has been decreasing over the last 30 years. That’s primarily attributable to better health education, outreach from national organizations like the American Cancer Society, and changing patterns in the use of tobacco and alcohol. But oral cancer from human papillomavirus (HPV) is increasing significantly, and risk factors for youth who indulge in smoking or the use of smokeless tobacco also is on the rise. Another questionable practice is the use of “vapes” or electric cigarettes, but research on the long-term effects of these devices is still in its infancy.

Raise Your Glasses… Then Place Them Back Down

Think what you will about alcohol use, but a culture of drinking is part of our heritage and lifestyle. While many people abstain due to health, religious, or moral concerns, millions of Americans and people around the globe imbibe socially, use wine in religious ceremonies, binge drink, or abuse alcohol for a variety of reasons varying from habit to pain relief to genetics.

Many people enjoy the experience of being lightly intoxicated including reduced inhibitions and stimulation, and drinking is a normal part of many of our every-day rituals and customs here in the United States and around the world.

But drinking too much – on a single occasion or over time – can have serious consequences for our health. These consequences go far beyond having a headache and a hangover that make us uncomfortable but go away relatively quickly.

April is National Alcohol Awareness Month. Most people recognize that excessive drinking can lead to accidents and dependence, and can cause liver disease. But that’s only part of the story. Unlike other drugs, alcohol disperses in all body tissues and therefore has the potential to harm many organ systems. Alcohol abuse can damage organs, weaken the immune system, and contribute to a variety of cancers. Plus, much like smoking, alcohol affects different people differently. Genes, environment, and even diet can play a role in whether you develop an alcohol-related disease.

On the flip side, some people may actually benefit from drinking alcohol in small quantities. Alcohol’s effect on our heart is the best example of alcohol’s dual effects. Drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can cause heart problems including high blood pressure, strokes, arrhythmia, and cardiomyopathy, a condition that causes our heart muscle to weaken and droop. But research also shows that healthy people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol (such as red wine) may have a lower risk of developing coronary artery disease than people who never drink at all.

Putting drinking in perspective

If you enjoy an alcoholic beverage once in a great while, you’re in good company: According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), seven out of 10 Americans report drinking alcohol at some point in the past year, and 56% drank in the past month. However, 26.9% of people ages 18 or over reported that they engaged in binge drinking, and 7% in heavy alcohol use regularly.

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) – or problem drinking – was reported in 15.1 million adults age 18 and over, with 1.3 million Americans seeking help in treatment facilities for drinking problems. What’s even more frightening is that, according to NSDUH, 623,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 were reported suffering from AUD, resulting in 37,000 treated at medical or rehabilitation facilities.

Approximately 90,000 people die from alcohol-related causes annually, making alcohol the fourth-leading preventable cause of death in the United States. Close to 10,000 Americans die in alcohol-related car accidents annually, and alcohol misuse costs our country approximately $250 billion in health-related expenses, lost work time, and other factors such as reduced productivity and accidents.

How alcohol hurts us

While drinking in moderation may not affect the health of our liver, heavy drinking can definitely take its toll. The liver helps rid our bodies of substances that can be dangerous, including alcohol. By breaking down alcohol, the liver produces toxic byproducts that damage liver cells, promote inflammation, and weaken the body’s natural defenses. This can make conditions ripe for disorders like steatosis, fibrosis, and cirrhosis, and dangerous inflammations like hepatitis to develop.

Pancreatic inflammations can also develop in response to drinking too much. Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually cause inflammation and swelling in tissues in blood vessels. This inflammation, called pancreatitis, prevents the pancreas from digesting food and converting it into fuel to power our bodies.

Aside from damaging our organs, drinking too much alcohol can also increase our risk of developing certain cancers, including those of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx, liver, and breast.

Alcohol also can weaken our immune systems, making our bodies a much easier target for disease. Drinking a lot on a single occasion slows our body’s ability to ward off infections, even up to 24 hours after getting drunk. Chronic drinkers are more likely to contract diseases like pneumonia and tuberculosis than people who do not drink too much.

So while some light to moderate drinking may not hurt you, it’s important to understand the toxic, longer-term effects of alcohol and use common sense when drinking any alcoholic beverage. We may never be a nation of teetotalers, but understanding what we put in our bodies and making smart decisions about our health will always work in our favor.

It’s Spring, Pass the Tissues!

There are several sure signs spring has arrived. The daffodils and crocuses are up, trees are budding, migrating birds are flocking, ice cream trucks and motorcycles can be heard in the distance, and people all around us are starting to sneeze, wheeze, and sniffle.  For all its color, warmth, and wonder, springtime also heralds the return of seasonal allergies, and for millions of Americans, it’s not a pleasant visit.

The severity of allergy season can vary according to where you live, the weather, indoor contaminants, and many other elements. Seasonal allergic rhinitis is usually caused by mold spores in the air or by trees, grasses, and weeds releasing billions of tiny pollen grains.

Outdoor molds are very common, especially after the spring thaw. They are found in soil, some mulches, fallen leaves, and rotting wood. Everybody is exposed to mold and pollen, but only some people develop allergies. In these people, the immune system, which protects us from invaders like viruses and bacteria, reacts to a normally harmless substance called an allergen (allergy-causing compound). Specialized immune cells called mast cells and basophils then release chemicals like histamine that lead to the symptoms of allergy: sneezing, coughing, a runny or clogged nose, postnasal drip, and itchy eyes and throat.

Asthma and allergic diseases, such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever), food allergy, and atopic dermatitis (eczema), are common for all age groups in the United States. For example, asthma affects more than 17 million adults and more than 7 million children. It’s estimated that one-fifth of all Americans are allergic to something, whether seasonal, airborne, or food related. Nasal allergy triggers can be found both indoors and outdoors, and can be year-round or seasonal. It’s important to be aware of the times of day, seasons, places, and situations where your nasal allergy symptoms begin or worsen. If you can identify your triggers, and create a plan for avoiding them when possible, you may be able to minimize symptoms.

Here are a few points to remember:

  • You may be reacting to more than one type of allergen. For example, having nasal allergies to both trees and grass can make your symptoms worse during the spring and summer, when both of these pollens are high.
  • Molds grow in dark, wet places and can disperse spores into the air if you rake or disturb the area where they’ve settled.
  • People with indoor nasal allergies can be bothered by outdoor nasal allergies as well. You may need ongoing treatment to help relieve indoor nasal allergy symptoms.

If avoidance doesn’t work, allergies can often be controlled with medications. The first choice is an antihistamine, which counters the effects of histamine. Steroid nasal sprays can reduce mucus secretion and nasal swelling. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that the combination of antihistamines and nasal steroids is very effective in those with moderate or severe symptoms of allergic rhinitis. However, always consult with your physician before taking even over-the-counter medicines for allergies, as they may conflict with other medications or aggravate symptoms of other illnesses or chronic conditions.

Another potential solution is cromolyn sodium, a nasal spray that inhibits the release of chemicals like histamine from mast cells. But you must start taking it several days before an allergic reaction begins, which is not always practical, and its use can be habit forming. Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, is an option if the exact cause of your allergies can be pinpointed. Immunotherapy involves a long series of injections, but it can significantly reduce symptoms and medication needs.

Your physician can help pinpoint what you are allergic to, and tell you the best way to treat your nasal allergy symptoms. Providing detailed information about your lifestyle and habits will help your physician design an appropriate treatment plan for relieving your symptoms.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology has some useful tips for those who suffer from seasonal allergies:

  • Wash bed sheets weekly in hot water.
  • Always bathe and wash hair before bedtime (pollen can collect on skin and hair throughout the day).
  • Do not hang clothes outside to dry where they can trap pollens.
  • Wear a filter mask when mowing or working outdoors. Also, if you can, avoid peak times for pollen exposure (hot, dry, windy days, usually between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.).
  • Be aware of local pollen counts in your area (visit the National Allergy Bureau Website).
  • Keep house, office, and car windows closed; use air conditioning if possible rather than opening windows.
  • Perform a thorough spring cleaning of your home, including replacing heating and A/C filters and cleaning ducts and vents.
  • Check bathrooms and other damp areas in your home frequently for mold and mildew, and remove visible mold with nontoxic cleaners.
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom and off of furniture, since they may carry pollen if they have been outdoors, or exacerbate your allergies if, for example, you’re allergic to cat dander.

We can’t always avoid the pollens, mold, and other triggers that aggravate our allergies, but we can try to limit or control exposure and pursue medical interventions to help mitigate our suffering. Spring is a wonderful time of year – enjoy it to its fullest, and pass the tissues