What Is Job Strain? Is Your Career Making You Sick?

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It’s Sunday at 5 p.m., and you start to feel a sensation of dread. You stay up binge-watching the latest series as long as you can, but when you hit the sheets, you toss and turn in despair. Could you be feeling job strain? 

Your career — or your working conditions — can damage your physical and mental health. Here’s an overview of what causes job strain, the consequences of this condition and how you can ease your stress. 

4 Causes of Job Strain 

Job strain refers to a state of psychological disquiet that can lead to physical consequences. According to author Robert Karasek, these physical and mental health risks occur when you couple workload demands or pressures with a low measure of control over how to meet said requirements. 

You can see this dynamic at work in many customer-facing roles. Many service professionals receive scores, or metrics, based upon client satisfaction responses to surveys. You might hear this when you call your cable company for internet help, and a recorded voice asks if you’d like to tell them about your experience after the call. 

However, the individual answering the phone can’t control if you called five times previously and received inadequate advice. Nor can they fix a down fiber-optic line 50 miles away. If the survey asks, “How likely are you to recommend ____,” and you say, “No way on this planet, baby,” the unlucky rep who took your call also takes the fall for the negative score.  

Those who work in such situations often hear management say, “The positives outweigh the negatives if you do a solid job.” For someone in that position, though, it’s frustrating to watch a much-needed bonus evaporate for no other reason than you aren’t a superhero with a magic cape to fix any problem. 

Here are four situations that can cause job strain. 

1. Poor Ergonomics

These circumstances often apply to assembly line workers and store clerks who must stand for hours on harsh, concrete floors. However, this can occur in office environments, as well. An improper chair or monitor placement can lead to low back strain. 

2. Hazardous Work Conditions 

Hazardous conditions increase stress, but the tension becomes toxic if nothing is done to protect workers. A perfect example of this is the recent novel coronavirus pandemic. 

According to United Food and Commercial Workers International, at least 82 grocery store workers died since news of the pandemic broke, and more than 10,000 have fallen ill. While fatalities make better headline fodder, the worst consequences may impact survivors. Many such workers lack access to benefits, and the long-term medical effects of infection can prove financially ruinous in a country that lacks universal health care. 

While COVID-19 is new, many have long had to decide between unsafe working conditions and going hungry or homeless. The stress alone can devastate their health. 

3. Workplace Harassment 

Despite laws preventing discrimination, many individuals still face it on the clock. Only recently did the Supreme Court decide that civil rights laws also cover members of the LGBTQ+ community. However, in states with right-to-work legislation, your employer may fire you for any reason or none at all. This effectively negates such protections except in the most egregious instances. 

4. Toxic Stress 

It’s 4:59 p.m. on a Friday, and your daughter has a weekend of soccer matches slated. Nevertheless, your boss plops down a proposal on your desk and asks you to revise it by 9 a.m. on Monday, forcing you to choose between a disappointed child and a potential blemish on your next evaluation. 

Sadly, workers in the United States face relatively few legal protections against unfair working conditions. As a result, you may feel like you have no choice but to honor your boss’s unreasonable demand and live with a sulky teenager to boot. 

Conditions Caused by Job Strain 

Job strain is no joke. It can have devastating physical and mental health consequences, such as the following: 

  • Chronic pain: Many conditions, such as migraines, rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, tend to flare when you feel unduly stressed. As a result, your symptoms become worse or even unmanageable.  
  • Heart conditions: Recent scientific evidence indicates that prolonged stress may rewire the circuits in your brain that regulate blood pressure. Even if you cut down on salt, don’t smoke or drink, and exercise regularly, you could increase your risk of cardiovascular disease by remaining in a toxic work environment. 
  • Depression and anxiety: Depression and anxiety rates continue climbing, and some experts believe that the lack of control many workers feel over their circumstances contributes to these issues. 
  • Other mental disorders: People who live with others who exhibit signs of narcissistic or antisocial personality disorder often start to develop severe psychological problems. Unfortunately, some of the traits of toxic folks make them excel in the workplace — where they may become your boss. 

How to Ease Job Strain 

If you fear you suffer from job strain, the following five activities could improve your mental and physical well-being. 

  • Take care of your health: As much as you may want to dive into the bottle, a bag of chips and a Netflix binge, try to resist the urge. Instead, prep healthy meals on your days off and try to get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise daily. 
  • Set a meeting with your supervisor: Your boss may not understand the toll their demands take. Set a time to discuss priorities with them. Instead of saying, “I’m overwhelmed,” try, “You’ve given me quite a few things to tackle. How would you like me to prioritize these activities so I cover the most vital assignments?” 
  • Talk to HR: If your direct supervisor is hostile, your next step is to talk to HR. Some workplaces allow you to file anonymous grievances. If you are the victim of harassment and have a trustworthy ally, they may submit a complaint on your behalf. 
  • Redesign your workspace: If your chair causes you discomfort, can you request a new, more ergonomic one? Could you try a standing desk or sit on an inflatable exercise ball? Investigate how to make your workspace suit your body to reduce repetitive strain injuries and pain. 
  • Consider moving on: If nothing eases your toxic work environment, it may be time to dust off your resume and move on to another position. While the market is challenging, opportunities still exist. You won’t find them, though, if job strain damages your health to the point where you have no energy to look. 

What Is Job Strain? It’s a Preventable Cause of Many Illnesses 

Now that you know what job strain is, take steps to reduce it in your life. Doing so will benefit your mental and physical health. 

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