It’s crucial to understand the ways your workplace might be negatively affecting your health, so you can start to combat them or look for employment elsewhere. Here are five things to keep a close eye on that could indicate your job is literally making you sick.
1. A weakened immune system
Scientists and psychologists have been studying the many ways stress weakens the immune system since the early 1980s when they first started looking at links between stress and infection in medical students. The immune systems of the students studied suffered under the stress test of a three-day exam period—the students had fewer natural killer cells, which fight tumors and viral infections; they almost entirely stopped producing immunity-boosting gamma interferon; and infection-fighting T-cells responded weakly to test-tube stimulation. This study opened the floodgates for more research, which concluded that long-term or chronic stress can indeed ravage the immune system.
“If your work inhibits your ability to sleep, immune systems can dampen and recovery times can lengthen,” explains Zach Cordell, MS, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Cordell Nutrition Consulting. “Along with this, when individuals are tired, judgment is impaired and food choices are influenced. Some may state that your willpower is lessened and, as a result, you make poorer food choices.” Of course, poor food choices can further weaken the immune system because the body needs nutrients to perform optimally.
“Since we spend most of our time at work, this constant bombardment of stress can definitely lead to poor immunity and the increased risk of being sick,” says registered dietarian nutritionist Jeanette Kimszal. “Constant stress can lead to increased cortisol production. This also affects a rise in insulin, leading to elevated blood sugar. There is constant stress on the pancreas to constantly produce blood sugar, and cells become insulin resistant if they are no able to take in all the excess insulin in the blood stream. What can result are weakened immunity, weight gain, thyroid issues, and diabetes.”
2. Gastrointestinal problems
“Stress has such a profound impact on our immune systems that sufferers may experience a wide array of symptoms—one of the most common and dangerous outcomes of stress is the effect it has on the stomach and GI tract,” explains Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics. “Besides weight problems and diarrhea, stress can cause extremely painful ulcers.”
According to Everyday Health, digestion is controlled by the enteric nervous system, which is composed of hundreds of millions of nerves that communicate with the central nervous system. The “flight or fight” mode in your central nervous system is activated with stress and shuts down blood flow, which can actually shut down digestion since the blood flow affects the contractions of your digestive muscles. Stress can also cause inflammation of the gastrointestinal system, which can make you more susceptible to infection.
3. Cognitive dysfunction
“Being in a bad job can adversely affect a person's cognitive abilities, in that he or she can have decreased concentration, be more distracted, can make more mistakes or errors, miss things, etc.,” explains Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist.
A study that conducted reading, pattern, and memory tests in more than 6,000 workers over the age of 40 found that the number of hours worked each week affects a person’s cognitive ability. It’s therefore no surprise that if you were to add stress to those hours, it’d affect a person’s brain function even more. People who work odd hours or overtime in demanding jobs are also affected more than others.
4. Anxiety or depression
“Examples of some emotional consequences of being in a toxic kind of job include low self-esteem, decreased self-confidence, diminished motivation, anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness and/or hopelessness, chronic anger, and not feeling valued and/or a part of the team,” Thomas explains. “People tend to have the highest job satisfaction and a business tends to operate at its best when each employee feels he or she is contributing something of value to the company and works as part of a team cooperatively. When either or both of these are not allowed or experienced in one's job, it can destroy a person's morale, confidence, and efforts.”
“I have seen people who get anxiety and lose sleep due to work stress,” adds licensed clinical social worker Hillary Marshall. “I have seen people who have had to go to the doctor and considered going on medication to cope with work stress. I have seen people who have had to go on workers comp after being bullied by coworkers, asking for help from the boss, and not receiving the needed support from the boss.”
5. Unintended weight loss or gain
“Across the board, I have found that being in a ‘bad job’ tends to negatively affect a person's self-esteem, self-confidence, and job motivation, regardless of what the industry or person's position is,” Thomas explains. “Unfortunately, the impact of being in a bad job whether due to a bad boss, co-workers, and/or office culture can affect a person physically, emotionally, and cognitively. Some physical symptoms a person can have include over- or under-sleeping, over- or under-eating, unintended weight gain or weight loss, feeling physically sluggish or physically tense, getting sick more frequently, suffering from headaches, backaches, gastrointestinal problems, etc.”
Excessive weight gain can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, strokes, diabetes, cancer, and depression. Extreme or rapid weight loss can also create physical demands on the body. Risks include dehydration and gallstones, which occur in 12 to 25 percent of people who lose large amounts of weight over several months.
A version of this post previously appeared on Fairygodboss, which helps women get the inside scoop on pay, corporate culture, benefits, and work flexibility. Founded in 2015, Fairygodboss offers company ratings, job listings, discussion boards, and career advice.
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