Managing Work Stress to Live a Healthy Life

By Steven D. Marks, M.D., Chief Medical Officer, PacificSource Health Plans

For most of us, work is a fact of life. A recent study shows that approximately 40 percent of U.S. workers say their jobs are very or extremely stressful. Research also reveals that one in four employees view their job as the number one stressor in their lives. Work problems have been associated with more health complaints than other stressors, including family and financial problems.

Mental and emotional health are impacted by stress and can have a large effect on physical health. It’s important to learn to manage your health and keep stress in check.

Work stress often occurs when job requirements don’t seem to fit with an employee’s capabilities, needs or resources. Harmful physical and emotional responses, such as aching muscles, loss of appetite, exhaustion, restless sleep, upset stomach, headache, impaired concentration, and low morale, can result as the body naturally reacts to these stresses.

If you’re feeling the burden of job stress, pinpoint the sources of the stress and find a way to work through them. When stress goes unresolved, the body will remain in a constant state of fight or flight response. Your nervous system and hormones work overtime—quickening your pulse, tensing your muscles and deepening your breathing. If stressful situations remain, potentially long-term damage may result from the increased wear and tear on your body. The natural ability of your body to repair and defend itself from illness and disease may be hindered.

Stress may contribute to several chronic health problems, including cardiovascular diseases, musculoskeletal and psychological disorders, cancer, ulcers, and a weakened immune system. Besides endangering your physical health, stress can take a toll on your mental and emotional health, often contributing to problems in personal relationships. The cost to treat health problems induced by stress can be enormous. Healthcare expenditures are about 50 percent higher for highly stressed employees, according to the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

If you have symptoms of stress, don’t wait to take control of your health. At PacificSource, we’ve found that successful stress management is often based on identifying the stress points, positive self-talk and engaging others for support.

Reducing stress requires changing certain behaviors and practicing techniques that promote relaxation. Here are tips for changing stress-producing behavior:

  • Build your own support network. Find someone to talk to (a friend, support group, mental health professional, pastor, etc.) and ask for help when you need it. Talking stressors through is a great way to start dealing with them.
  • Do something you love. If you can’t find your passion at work, volunteer or participate in a hobby.
  • Develop healthy habits to reduce stress. Exercise counteracts the stress response. Eat healthful well-balanced meals to increase your ability to cope. This includes eliminating or reducing the use of alcohol and tobacco.
  • Get plenty of sleep and practice relaxation techniques.
  • Find time for yourself and loved ones, even if you have to create it. Leisure is a necessity, not a reward for finishing your to-do list.
  • Be realistic with yourself. Set obtainable goals, be flexible, organize where possible, prioritize, and pace yourself—at work and in your personal life.

Above all, keep things in perspective. A healthy, satisfying and fulfilling life consists of a balance of work and leisure.

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Last updated 3/11/2009