7 Ways to Work Yourself to Death

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

ByABC News
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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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).