The Wall Street Journal

How Job Stress Affects Your Health


In this episode, digital science editor Daniela Hernandez participates in a week-long experiment to find out how work-related stress impacts our bodies and to measure her own resilience.

Photo: Natalia V. Osipova/The Wall Street Journal

#WSJ #Health #Wellness

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- Nowadays, more and more workers report feeling stressed.
I can relate.
Like most people, I get nervous
when I'm being put on the spot at a meeting
or need to respond to my editor's criticism.
I'm about to go into a meeting that I'm stressed about.
I have two deadlines to meet.
To learn how stress at work affects our health,
I'm enrolling in a scientific experiment.
Big sigh of relief.
Let's see what the week brings.
- There's a whole cascade of physiological responses
that occur under stress.
And each of us differs in the way in which we respond.
(gentle music)
- Columbia University professor Richard Sloan and his lab
developed a unique way to measure
the impact of stress on our health.
Can you tell us about the experiment that I'm going
to be putting myself through for the next week?
- What we're interested in is trying to understand
the underlying physiology of the experience of stress
throughout the regular day.
- [Daniela] For seven days, I'll need to wear
a small portable heart monitor
and fill out a questionnaire on a modified iPod.
For this study, Richard Sloan's lab has developed an app
that will prompt me to log my mood, who I'm with,
and how stressed I am 12 to 15 times a day.
- With the combination of these two sets of data
we'll be able to get a pretty interesting picture
of how your heart responds
to a variety of different circumstances.
- [Daniela] Under stress, glands above the kidneys
release stress-related hormones like adrenaline,
which increases our heart rate.
We sweat more, and the way we metabolize food changes.
Our immune system goes into overdrive,
and that can cause inflammation.
This response is meant to protect us
against against an infection.
- That's good, as long as the response,
the inflammatory response, doesn't outlast the challenge.
- If our immune system is overactive for too long,
it won't be able to protect us against a cold
or an infectious disease.
Is stress always bad?
- No.
Excessive stress is bad.
- [Daniela] A certain amount of stress
can help us be engaged and work better,
but chronic stress can have a negative effect on our health.
- One of the classic cases of extended stress is caregiving.
Stressful work experiences,
having a work environment that is ...
not supportive, having ...
a boss who is frequently ...
angry or hostile, critical is another chronic stressor.
- Chronic stress puts us at risk
for developing a variety of diseases.
It changes the way our bodies release insulin,
the hormone that regulate level of sugar in the blood,
and that increases the risk for developing diabetes.
The prolonged inflammation linked to chronic stress
can damage blood vessels,
and that can up the risk of heart disease.
My job is demanding, the hours are long,
and I'm curious to know how I'm coping.
This is my first home video entry,
and I've been wearing the heart monitor now
for probably five hours.
Logging and wearing a heart monitor
only added to my everyday stress.
I had to make sure the data and circumstances were recorded.
I'm about to go into a stressful meeting.
Hopefully it'll go well.
But the experiment also helped me understand
who and what stresses me out
and the impact of confronting personal challenges.
Knowing that scientists were going to sift through my data
made me work out harder.
It also made me more conscious of my work-life balance.
I am basically gonna go back to work ...
seven hours after I left the office.
It's Wednesday night at ...
9:04 p.m., and I'm still at the office.
2:17 a.m. on Saturday, September ...
It's July.
It's July.
Do I look like a stress case in this data?
- You don't report a lot of stress.
Over the seven-day period when you were prompted
about whether you were experiencing stress right now,
only 12 times did you report yes to that
out of about 70 or so.
- Overall, my cardiogram was perfectly normal.
But even though I wasn't consistently stressed all week,
I remember moments when my heart rate changed.
For instance, when I had to pitch a new project,
the heart monitor picked up on that.
I'm sitting in Bryant Park.
A long walk outside after some weekend work
helped me cope with stress.
I feel pretty relaxed and energized.
It's really nice to be outside.
For my heart rate, it meant that variability went up,
which is good, because stress usually does the opposite.
For instance, when I was getting a story ready to publish,
it felt like a pit in my stomach,
and my heart rate was still.
So are some of the traps of stress of our own making?
- Yes, in a sense.
Some are, and some are not.
If you work in an incredibly stressful environment
because your supervisors are nasty, and you have deadlines,
and you have relatively limited control
over your work experience but lots of demands,
those things aren't really not of your own making,
and it's generally much more beneficial and more effective
to change the environment if it's at all possible.
- [Daniela] If changing environments or jobs
isn't an option, then research suggests
reframing your experience or even relaxation exercises
might help reduce the impact of chronic stress.
It was reassuring to know my heart was resilient
to the challenges of my work week,
or perhaps my workout balance stopped my stress.
- You could argue the heart rate variability
is a measure of resilience.
It's a measure of the flexibility
of the cardiovascular system to respond to a challenge,
and that is what resilience is.
From an evolutionary perspective,
having higher levels of heart rate variability
gives you more room to raise or lower your heart rate
in response to a challenge that you might experience.
- Relaxing a little bit more today.
I don't have a pressing deadline.
Hopefully no breaking news.
There are many ways to improve our resilience to stress.
Science shows that mindfulness exercises
like yoga and meditation can help.
Sleep is important.
Also, consider hitting the gym.
- Increasing your cardio-respiratory fitness
is associated with an increase in heart rate variability.
As a cardiology colleague of mine used to say,
the heart is happiest when it dances.
(gentle music)

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