Click here: Top Cause Of Workplace Sickness Dubbed 'Black Death Of 21st Century' - Careers Articles
By Claire Gordon
It's been dubbed the "21st century equivalent of the Black Death." In the U.K., it's the most common reason employees take long-term sick leave. It costs American companies $300 billion a year. In Japan, it's a fatal epidemic.
It's stress.Stress has beaten out stroke, heart attack, cancer and back problems as the main reason British workers take four or more weeks away from the job, according to a new report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. The Japan Ministry of Labor began publishing official statistics on "Karoshi" (death from overwork) in 1987, but the first case was documented in 1969, when a worker dropped dead of a stroke. He was 29.
The symptoms of stress are similar to those of someone in withdrawal from an addictive drug: finding it difficult to focus; losing your sense of humor; irritability; and shortened temper. Stress can also lead to under- and overeating, as well as smoking and drinking to excess. And in its most extreme forms it can result in stomach and bowel problems, heart disease and stroke.
"Cortisol, the hormone that the body releases under stress, is the strongest immunosuppressant known," write evolutionary biology researchers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. When Sheldon Cohen studied the sleep habits of 153 healthy men and women and then exposed them to the virus that causes the common cold, he found that individuals who slept less than seven hours per night were three times as likely to get sick.
Human beings haven't evolved to cope with the levels of work in modern society, they claim. For a healthy and long life, people should model themselves on our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
"If you hunt or gather just enough low-fat food to forestall serious hunger pangs," they write, "and spend the rest of your time in low-stress activities, such as telling stories by the fire, taking extended hammock-embraced naps, and playing with children, you'd be engaged in the optimal lifestyle for human longevity."
Unfortunately, that kind of lifestyle isn't particularly practical today, and increasingly less so. In what Mother Jones magazine dubs the "The Great Speedup" middle-income and professional Americans have been working more and more hours since the late 1970s. In that same time period, a full-time American male worker has seen his real wages decline.
The definition of speedup is "an employer's demand for accelerated output without increased pay." It used to be a household word, but today it's so normal it's hardly acknowledged.
The recession has only piled on the stress. And not just for millions of laid-off workers, but for the ones lucky enough to keep their jobs too. While economic production recovered to near-recession levels months ago, Mother Jones notes, the employment rate has not. Not hardly, and particularly not in the U.S. That lost productivity has been made up by those still clinging to their posts.
In the U.K. report, stress was a more common affliction at companies that had announced redundancies.
America is also notoriously frugal in its vacation time. We're one of only five countries in the world without legally mandated paid vacation time, and over a quarter of American workers don't receive any. We're one of only six countries without paid maternity leave (the others are Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Samoa, and Swaziland). We're one of only handful of countries in the world that doesn't guarantee any paid sick days. When 46 percent of Americans have to skip work from sickness, they lose the day's wages, and risk being fired.
Americans work more than most people in the world, 122 hours more a year than the British, and nearly 10 weeks more than Germans. And the U.S. economy has swelled, thanks to this labor, doubling in size over the last 30 years.
"We're not sharing in these productivity gains," says John de Graaf, the national coordinator for Take Back Your Time, an advocacy group pushing for paid vacation time and other worker protections, and the author of the forthcoming book "What's the Economy for Anyway?."
And the extra work has taken a toll on America's health. A 2007 study by Emory University's school of public health found that Americans 50 years or older were more likely to suffer from cancer, diabetes and heart disease than Europeans at the same age. "We have more chronic diseases in old age," says de Graaf. "And those are very expensive diseases."
To really battle stress, de Graaf believes we need to reduce our country's vast disparities in wealth. "Taming inequality is the most important thing. The top one percent is garnering nearly a quarter of all the income in this country. It's outrageous, really."
"There's no silver bullet here," he admits, but he believes increasing the minimum wage would be one powerful way to reduce the psychological burden on many Americans. Giving workers greater control over their hours would also go far. A law passed in Netherlands in 2000 allows employees to request a reduction in their hours, from five days to four, for example. Their wages are cut proportionately and their benefits pro-rated, but the employer must grant the request, unless it's at an intolerable financial cost to the company.
Such a bill would likely get strangled on arrival in America's political system. Not only does the lack of universal health care make such a law immensely more complicated, but America's political attitudes are in general more hostile to mandates on business.
De Graaf helped Rep. Alan Grayson draft his "Paid Vacation Act" back in 2009, which would, if successful, have required companies with more than 100 employees to offer one week of paid vacation time.
"We were attacked for that as if we were advocating the end of human civilization," says De Graaf. The bill found only five Democratic co-sponsors.
A few companies these days seem to understand the importance of workers' health and well-being to productivity and profits. Zappos, Patagonia, and a handful of other firms offer flexible policies to balance work and life, and have become sought-after destinations for young talent.
But this doesn't necessarily represent a tidal change.
"This is going to take rules," says de Graaf. "It's going to take legislation. We need regulations. A football game doesn't work if one team can go in wearing brass knuckles."
It used to be the oft-repeated dream of economists and philosophers that productivity could reach a point where human beings would only need to a work a few hours a day, and still provide for all their needs.
More than 200 years ago Benjamin Franklin wrote: "If every Man and Woman would work for four Hours each Day on something useful, that Labour would produce sufficient to procure all the Necessities and Comforts of Life, Want and Misery would be banished out of the World, and the rest of the 24 hours might be Leisure and Pleasure."
Since Franklin's day, efficiency has increased mightily, but the 20-hour work week is too ludicrous an idea to pass the lips of any mainstream politician.
In an interview in last month's Businessweek, Mitt Romney said "the primary role of the government is to encourage the innovation and risk-taking and entrepreneurship of the American people."
"That would come as news to Thomas Jefferson," says de Graaf. "He said on a number of occasions that the only purpose of government was to increase the happiness of its citizens.
Luke 21:26 'Men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth...' Luke 21:34 'But take heed to yourselves and be on your guard, lest your hearts be overburdened and depressed (weighed down) with the giddiness and headache and nausea of self-indulgence, drunkenness, and worldly worries and cares pertaining to [the business of] this life, and [lest] that day come upon you suddenly like a trap or a noose...'
James 2:1 My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.
2 For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment;
3 And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:
4 Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?
5 Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?
6 But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?
7 Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?
8 If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself, ye do well:
9 But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors.
10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.
11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if thou commit no adultery, yet if thou kill, thou art become a transgressor of the law.
12 So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.
13 For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.
James 5:1 Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you.
2 Your riches are corrupted, and your garments are motheaten.
3 Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you, and shall eat your flesh as it were fire. Ye have heaped treasure together for the last days.
4 Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.
5 Ye have lived in pleasure on the earth, and been wanton; ye have nourished your hearts, as in a day of slaughter.
6 Ye have condemned and killed the just; and he doth not resist you.
7 Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, and hath long patience for it, until he receive the early and latter rain.
8 Be ye also patient; stablish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh.
9 Grudge not one against another, brethren, lest ye be condemned: behold, the judge standeth before the door.
10 Take, my brethren, the prophets, who have spoken in the name of the Lord, for an example of suffering affliction, and of patience.
11 Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.
12 But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.
13 Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.
14 Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord:
15 And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.
16 Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
17 Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.
18 And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.
19 Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him;
20 Let him know, that he which converteth the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.