7 Ways to Work Yourself to Death

Research reveals several surprising ways your job could shorten your life.

ByJANE E. ALLEN, ABC News Medical Unit
October 2, 2010, 12:15 AM

Oct. 4, 2010— -- It turns out your job might be a double-edged sword when it comes to your health.

Just as work can enrich our lives, in many ways it can shorten them -- a fact that cuts across socioeconomic levels, ages and nationalities.

A growing body of research stands testament to this fact: lack of sleep has been shown to tax the hearts of the stressed executive and the stressed day worker alike; layoffs can take their psychic and physiologic toll in the executive suite and on the production line; the burden on those left behind, who work more overtime to shoulder a heavier workload, can be life-shortening; and living in fear of losing a job, or staying put in a hostile workplace, also boosts the risk of an earlier cardiac death.

The Japanese have a term for this phenomenon called "karoshi," which means death caused by overwork. Thinking more broadly, it's not just overwork that can make work a deadly pursuit. Occupational hazards such as exposure to toxics in construction sites or mines, can lead to an early demise.

On the following pages are just seven of the ways your job could put you at risk of an early visit from the Grim Reaper, and how you can nip some of these problems in the bud for a better chance of a longer, healthier life.

Distracted Driving: Taking the Office on the Road

Cell phones, smart phones and personal digital assistants have improved the ability to conduct work at all hours and in almost any setting, as long as you can get a signal.

But federal figures hint at the toll exacted by bringing the office into the driver's seat. During 2008, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports 5,870 people died in crashes in which police cited distracted driving as a contributing factor.

While this number doesn't capture the total number of crashes associated with distracted drivers -- or, for that matter, tease out fatal crashes caused by drivers who continue texting and talking on cell phones behind the wheel -- it contributes to the growing evidence that working while driving may end your life prematurely.

Drilling down further into those statistics, 5,501 drivers were reported to be have been distracted in the 5,331 fatal crashes where at least one driver was distracted. This means that in some multi-car accidents, two or more drivers' attention was elsewhere. This phenomenon is on the rise: the percentage of drivers reported to be distracted at the time of the accident increased from 8 percent in 2004 to 11 percent in 2008, NHTSA reported.

A report published in the Sept. 23 online edition of the American Journal of Public Health calculated that texting while driving, which has risen dramatically, took an estimated 16,000 lives between 2002 and 2007. Lead researcher Fernando Wilson, an associate professor in the school of public health at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth, said that increases in distracted driving "seem to be largely driven by increased use of cell phones to text."

The Solution:

This one is easy, experts say: When you are on the road, put down your phone or BlackBerry. Considering the consequences, it's likely that work, however important, can wait.

"People [need to] take personal responsibility for the fact that they're driving a three- or four-thousand-pound car," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told ABC News last month. "If you're looking down at a cell phone for four seconds or a texting device for four seconds, you're driving the length of a football field without looking at the road."

Sitting Still: When Work's Got You Chained to the Desk

Doctors, nutritionists and other health professionals tell us time and again how sitting on a couch, snacks at the ready, contributes to heart disease and diabetes. An American Cancer Society study released in July found that sitting for more than six hours of leisure time each day boosted the risk of dying, regardless of whether people smoked or were overweight.

But who knew until quite recently that the countless hours many workers spent seated at their desks, eyes glued to computer screens or phones attached to ears might cut their lives short?

A study published online last month and in this month's print issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found some evidence that sedentary workers were at an increased risk of dying -- even if they were diligent about exercising in their off hours. Lead author Jannique van Uffelen, a research fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia, led the review of 43 studies, involving more than 2 million workers, which examined sedentary time at the office. She and her colleagues found some limited evidence linking hours spent sitting at work with both diabetes and early death.

Although authors of an accompanying commentary called for more in-depth research in this area, they said van Uffelen's work was the first systematic review to look at the long-term effects of hours spent sitting at work.

The Solution:

Make sure you build into your daily schedule opportunities to get up from your desk and walk around. Take the stairs, leave your desk for lunch -- or better yet, convince your boss to invest in a combination treadmill and desk developed by James Levine, an endocrinologist at the Mayo Clinic. Called the walkstation, the device could be just what the doctor ordered for combating the negative effects of a sedentary work culture.

Work Is Hell: When You Have a Bad Boss or Hostile Workplace

Multiple studies in recent years have focused on the impact of a hostile workplace and a bad boss on a worker's physical and mental health. It turns out that these factors can be life-shortening.

People who are harassed at the office and experience fear, intimidation, ostracism, psychological or physical threats, embarrassment or ridicule, tend to go to their graves sooner. Support for this association can be found in a study released in the Nov. 25, 2008, online edition of the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Psychologist Anna Nyberg of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm found that working for a bad boss boosted the risk of chest pain, heart attack and death among more than 3,000 well-educated, middle-class Swedish men. She reported that men who perceived their bosses as poor leaders had a higher risk of dying than men who perceived their bosses to be competent.

Worse, the longer these men labored for a bad boss, the greater their stress and risk of heart disease or death. Nyberg found the association held regardless of social class, income, lifestyle, workload, or established heart disease risk factors like smoking and lack of exercise.

The Solution:

Do what you can to change the work culture in your office. Building positive relationships with coworkers and working to forge better communication with your supervisors may go a long way in terms of improving the morale within your work environment. If the situation is untenable, consider talking to human resources to see if there is a legal way to remedy the hostile environment in your workplace. And if you truly feel that the situation is taking a toll on your health, consider looking into alternative employment.

Wide Awake: When Work Disrupts Your Sleep

Not every form of stress eats at your stomach, gives you headaches or makes your neck ache. Work stress can creep up more subtly; the cumulative effect of insufficient sleep, whether caused by interrupted or poor sleep, insomnia or the body's inability to adjust to shift work can also speed your demise.

Scientific evidence for how this happens is accumulating. An analysis of several studies, published in May 2010, consistently linked getting less than six hours of sleep to an increased risk of dying early. The same study also found that sleeping more than nine hours nightly boosted the risk of premature death.

Researchers from the University of Warwick in Great Britain and from Federico II University medical school in Naples, Italy, analyzed 16 studies, involving more than 1.3 million people and 100,000 deaths in a 25-year period. The lead author of the study published in the journal Sleep, Francesco Cappuccio -- who also heads the Sleep, Health and Society program at the University of Warwick -- said that short sleep may be a cause of ill health, while abnormally long sleep may indicate underlying illness.

Sleeping six to eight hours is considered optimal. Sleeping less than six hours, often driven by pressure to work more, or the inability to accommodate to the odd hours of shift work, has been linked to heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and obesity. The stress of inadequate sleep can, among other things, cause the body to release more stress hormones, which in turn raise blood pressure and strain the heart. Stress also can make blood stickier, promoting the formation of clots that can cause a heart attack.

The Solution:

When possible, leave work at the office; try not to let your work life bleed into the late hours of the night. If necessary, schedule your sleep so that you are guaranteed to get a solid six to eight hours. And if stress is keeping you awake at night on a regular basis, you may want to seek professional help.

Walking Papers: Getting Laid Off or Fired

An intriguing study published in the May 2009 issue of the American Economic Review highlighted the life-threatening impact of losing a job.

Daniel G. Sullivan, director of research at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and Till von Wachter, an economist at Columbia University, studied death records and earnings data for male Pennsylvania workers in the 1970s and 1980s, when that state was hit by a recession. They calculated that in the year after employees with a lot of seniority lost their jobs, death rates were 50 percent to 100 percent higher than otherwise would have been expected. Not only that, but they found a persistent effect: the rate remained elevated 20 years later.

The two economists calculated that the life expectancy of a man laid off at age 40 by a plant closing, mass layoff or other downsizing would be up to 1.5 years shorter. Von Wachter summed up this observation like this: "We were convincingly able to show that if you lose your job, you die earlier."

The stress associated with losing a job is often described as one of the most trying life events, along with divorce and death of a loved one. But it isn't the only job-related worry that can kill you. The persistent fear of losing a job, which is particularly prevalent in the current economic climate, can produce similar stress and ill health, according to sociologist Sarah A. Burgard, a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan's Population Studies Center. Burgard published a study of the "waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop" phenomenon in the September 2009 issue of the journal Social Science & Medicine. The health impact of grappling with ambiguity about one's future, the inability to take action and the lack of institutionalized support, might be greater than the impact of losing a job in the same phase of one's career, she found.

The Solution:

It's not easy to recover after losing your job, but health experts say the effects of such a tribulation can be mitigated by smart behavior. One of the most important things someone struggling with a job loss can do is invest in their own well-being.

"They have to take good care of themselves -- mind, body and spirit," Jim Stringham, a psychologist and clinical social worker based in Salt Lake City, told ABC News. "Exercise, eat right, feed your soul with activities, whether that's going to church or being around friends and family."

Burning the Midnight Oil: Working Overtime or Working Late

In May of this year, a study of British civil servants found that those working 10 to 11 hours a day (compared with the traditional seven-hour British workday), were as much as 60 percent more likely to suffer heart disease or die prematurely than those working regular hours.

The study, published in the European Heart Journal, tracked the development of heart disease, heart attacks or chest pain among 6,000 men and women ages 39 to 61 over the course of about 11 years. All were free of heart disease when the study began in the early 1990s.

Lead author Marianna Virtanen, of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health in Helsinki and University College, London, suggested that the longer-toiling workers might have undetected high blood pressure, might get insufficient sleep or might suffer from stress. Those putting in longer hours tended to be men, younger workers and those with higher-level jobs.

The Solution:

Given the current economic climate, it may be hard for many U.S. workers to say "no thanks" to overtime for the sake of their health. Still, it may be in your best interest to explore ways to exercise more control over your schedule, such as flex time. According to a review published in February in The Cochrane Library, workers who had more control over their schedules and work days saw improvements in both physical and mental health.

Risky Workplace: When Occupational Hazards Expose You to Danger

Occupational health hazards, sometimes caused by exposures to dangers not visible to the naked eye, can shorten lives, research shows.

In late October 2009, British government officials announced that asbestos was the top workplace killer in Great Britain and that about a quarter of the 4,000 people dying from asbestos-related illnesses every year were tradesmen such as carpenters, electricians, plumbers and painters who come in contact while working in homes and other buildings with the heat-resistant mineral used for years in insulation.

In fact, from 1977 to 2007, more than 35,000 U.K. workers died from asbestos-related mesothelioma, a rare and deadly cancer primarily affecting the lining of the lungs. Similarly, those who spend their work lives mining coal, copper and radioactive uranium are exposed to toxic dust and gases that can leave them with a variety of lung diseases and cancer.

Even flight attendants, who spend years speeding across continents seven miles into the stratosphere, are exposed to more cosmic and solar radiation that those of us who are earthbound. According to a NASA report, flight crews on routes at high latitudes, where the atmosphere is thinner and provides less filtering of radiation than closer to the equator, are exposed to more radiation annually than nuclear plant workers.

A 2009 meta-analysis of previous studies, which appeared in the Journal of Travel Medicine, confirmed "significantly increased" rates of breast cancer and melanoma among female flight attendants, but authors said the findings were controversial because there was only limited evaluation of non-work-related factors, such as sun exposure.

The Solution:

For some jobs, the exposure to potentially dangerous situations or environments is simply a fact of life. The important thing is to adhere to all recommended health and safety practices for your profession -- whether that means donning a dust mask or other protective gear if you are in a construction or carpentry role, to practicing proper safety measures if you work with or around dangerous substances. If you feel that your work is putting your health at unnecessary risk, you can learn more about your options at the website of the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA).

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