Love your work

For some people, work is their salvation in times of crisis, but for many of us work is our crisis. Does the thought of work make you sick or depressed? Just thinking about work sends stress surging, according to a University College London study showing that the stress hormone cortisol is highest just before work. No wonder Monday morning is the most common time for a heart attack.

If you dread work and spend hours clock-watching, cyber-surfing for dream jobs or saying “I hate this” or “Tahiti looks nice”, you may have a dose of the vocation virus. Do your health problems miraculously go into remission on holidays, only to return with work? My patients suffering from these occupational hazards have found that dropping pills for their health problems doesn’t work as well as dropping their job or their attitude to work. Could a radical jobotomy help your health?

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) said love and work are the two essential aspects of a well-adjusted person. Enriching work can keep us sane, just as the wrong work can drive us insane. The Russian novelist Dostoevski (1821-1881) remarked, “Deprived of meaningful work, men and women lose their reason for existence; they go stark, raving mad.”

After analysing patients I sadly lost to heart attacks and cancer, I realised the strong role their draining worklife had played in their demise. It had literally sucked the life out of them, not unlike the 19th century French novelist Honoré de Balzac’s observation that “an unfulfilled vocation drains the colour from a man’s entire existence”. If only they had undertaken a sincere job autopsy and overhaul while they were alive, things may have been different.

The price of a pay cheque

Long hours, workplace conflicts, unclear roles and unreasonable demands are leading many to question the price of their pay cheque. Maggie Hamilton, author of Love Your Work, Reclaim Your Life, said her work woes motivated her to explore the work dilemma: I had become suffocated by the stress, the deadlines and the fatigue.”

Work stress is a common contributor to health problems, says Professor Graham Burrows, Chairman of Mental Health Foundation of Australia (Victoria): “Fifty per cent of people in general hospitals are there directly as a response to stress.”

According to a review by S. Michie and S. Williams in Occupational and Environmental Medicine 60 (January 2003), the top factors causing work stress and related illness are “long hours worked, work overload and pressure, and the effects of these on personal lives; lack of control over work; lack of participation in decision making; poor social support; and unclear management and work role”.

Stress, which can be triggered by a multitude of factors such as excessive pressure, poor communication, chaotic organisation, bad working relationships or physical strain, increases your heart rate, blood pressure and muscle tension.

The karoshi epidemic

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, almost half a million people experience a work-related illness annually. Research in 2004 by The Australia Institute found that Australians are suffering higher-than-usual levels of work-related anxiety, heart disease, depression and stress. NSW Labor Council’s occupational health and safety watchdog, Mary Yaager, warns, “Australian employers are literally working their staff to death, with on-the-job stress, violence and fatigue edging their way up to become major causes of workplace fatalities.”

Working yourself into an early grave is a well-documented phenomenon in Japan, where it’s known as karoshi. Since 1969, the National Defence Council for Victims of Karoshi has estimated 10,000 workers die from overwork each year in Japan and a recent survey found that 40 per cent of all Japanese workers fear they will work themselves to death.

We’re not immune in the laidback lucky country, either. According to Clive Hamilton, director of The Australia Institute and author of Growth Fetish and Affluenza, “While Australians often think of themselves as living in the land of the long weekend, they are now working the longest hours in the developed world and are at risk of working themselves sick.”

Even with an excuse, Australians aren’t apt to slack off, with only 39 per cent of full-time employees taking their full annual leave in 2002, a pitiful entitlement of four weeks compared with Germany’s six weeks and the European average of five weeks. (However, we appear to be luckier than those living the American dream, with 2003 US Department of Labor statistics stating that their average annual leave is only eight days — the stingiest in the industrialised world.)

Putting your heart into it

Though stress is a fact of life, stress stimulus and response differ for everyone. People with sensitive systems will be more affected by stress, whereas those with a strong psycho-physiological constitution are more resistant. Some thrive on the extra alertness stress brings, functioning better with a fire under them and knowing how to extinguish tension before adrenaline engulfs them. Others internalise stress, over-producing hormones like cortisol, which may cause phantom aches, fatigue, lowered immunity, poor brain function and heart disease. And then there are those who expel stress with extreme behaviours such as violence and addiction, disturbing themselves and those around them.

While short-term stress can kickstart motivation, long-term stress undermines every healthy, rejuvenating mental and physical function. It particularly affects the heart, according to a recent study by the University of London, which concluded that chronic stress is six times more likely to contribute to heart disease or cancer than high cholesterol or smoking.

Stressful jobs can be real heart breakers. British Heart Foundation statistics show that employees exposed to stress for at least half their working lives are 25 per cent more likely to die from a heart attack and have a 50 per cent greater chance of suffering a fatal stroke.

At the Chicago Board of Trade, there’s a morbid reminder that stress and heart disease go hand in hand: a paramedic station with a stretcher and defibrillator pads set up just off the trading floor.

In India, the Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation called a meeting over concern that employee deaths escalated from 426 in 1995 to 1653 in 2002, half of them from heart attacks related to extreme work pressure and management harassment.
Even those who love their work need to take time out for sleeping, eating and relaxing. A strong connection has been established between long working hours and heart attacks. Prompted by the high incidence of karoshi from heart attack, a 1998 Japanese study found that men working an average of more than 11 hours a day were more than twice as likely to have a heart attack than those averaging seven to nine hours.

When Australian playwright David Williamson experienced heart arrhythmia, he noticed it worsened when he overworked and he successfully managed the problem by reducing his workaholic hours.

Killer jobs

Many researchers have tried to identify which jobs are the most stressful or have the highest incidence of death from disease or suicide. A Swedish stress test discovered that jobs requiring prolonged effort with emotional distress increase levels of the “fright, flight or fight” hormone adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol and endogenous cholesterol, which all contribute to a greater risk of coronary heart disease.

Manual workers are at greater risk of heart disease, according to the British Heart Foundation’s finding that premature death from coronary heart disease is 58 per cent higher for male manual workers than non-manual workers and 200 per cent greater for female manual workers, this being attributed to increased job strain.

It seems the lower you are on the corporate ladder, the higher your chances of suffering a job-related illness. The UK Whitehall II study supports this theory, concluding that workers with low job control suffer double the risk of a coronary heart event than those in high-control managerial positions.

Professor Michael Marmot of University College, London, agrees that high-status employment brings better health. In his book, The Status Syndrome, he details research revealing those with a higher education, salary and social status have greater longevity. It was found that men at the base of the office hierarchy have a four-times higher risk of death than top-rung administrators. Education was another factor: “PhDs lived longer than people with masters degrees, and masters lived longer than bachelors.” According to Marmot, “Position in the social hierarchy is clearly related to health, wellbeing and length of life.”

So which jobs are the most stressful? A combination of little control, extreme demands and direct customer contact gave paramedics and social workers the dubious status of having the most stressful jobs in Britain, according to a 2004 survey by business psychology consultancy, Robertson Cooper Ltd. They found that the least stressed were senior business directors, as they had less direct contact with customers.

Research headed by Neal Ashkanasy at The University of Queensland found that the most stressful jobs are those that force workers to hide their true emotions, such as air stewards who have to smile or undertakers who have to be sombre. The Jobs Rated Almanac lists the most stressful job as the President of the US, with fire fighters coming second.

Ask anyone which profession has the highest suicide rate and they’re likely to repeat the urban myth that it’s dentists. The truth is there’s no definitive answer. However, as a generalisation, it seems that working in the medical profession is most likely to drive people over the edge. Separate British and US studies in 1972, 1988, 1995 and 1997 concurred that those in the medical field had the highest suicide casualties. The long hours are a major stress factor, as a British Medical Association survey of almost 11,000 health consultants found that 77 per cent worked more than 50 hours a week for the National Health Service and 46 per cent worked more than 60 hours a week — well within the karoshi risk zone.

Other professions with a high suicide rate include food batch-makers, black male guards, female artists, dentists, miners, farmers, female nurses, teachers, police and builders labourers. Though suicides related to unemployment are higher than those for the employed, workplace problems could explain a high percentage of suicides in Australia, with a 2002 Victorian study finding that work was a significant factor in 109 suicides from 1989 to 2000.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Work was an exciting prospect when we were bright-eyed kids dreaming about what we were going to be when we grew up … astronaut, nurse, fireman, flight attendant. But somehow many of us have fallen victim to workplace angst, trapped in unfulfilling jobs that sap our precious time and energy. Rather than follow our calling, many of us have answered the call to do what others expect or what material necessity dictates.

Considering that work can consume up to 80 per cent of your waking hours, you should do something you love, to serve yourself and others. The exhilaration of expressing your unique energy can elevate you to a transcendental state, as Marsha Sinetar explains in Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow: “Those who work in a state of mindful awareness bring an almost supernatural power to what they do.” Instead of struggling in loveless labour, you can thrive when job development and self-development evolve simultaneously. Work is then no longer a struggle but an empowering expression of your unique gifts.

Many people want to change their work but often lack the courage, confidence, information or inspiration to shift. Some are stuck in “the comfort trap”, explored in psychologist Judith Sills’ book of the same name, and hold limited concepts of their options and capabilities that cripple a career move. A belief that work is to be endured rather than enjoyed will keep you captive in a dissatisfying career.

Though many of us know what we’d like to do, we don’t do what we know. This creates incredible internal stress as the soul’s true purpose and self-expression is sacrificed in favour of “the job of least resistance”. The discrepancy between what you want to do and what you feel you have to do wages an inner war as you struggle to summon the energy to continue or to search for an alternative. This takes its toll on your mental and physical wellbeing. As Russian novelist Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) wrote in Doctor Zhivago, “Your health is bound to be affected if day after day you say the opposite of what you feel.”

Reality TV shows like The Apprentice and The Rebel Billionaire reflect a work culture that promotes enormous stress and questionable values as a normal part of professional life. The sadistic initiation “interview process” demands ridiculous risk-taking, undignified actions like marrying a stranger, brutal character assassination of co-workers and unethical business practices. When a candidate was admonished for stopping to take lunch and another was praised for abusing a friend and inflating prices, the message was that work has paramount priority over health, relationships and values. But is sacrificing these things worth it for the sake of “success”?

A very wealthy patient of mine said he would trade all his professional power and prestige if he could regain his health and his relationship with his family. In striving for “success”, he met with ultimate failure: his health and relationships in crumbling disrepair. Writer Maya Angelou gives a profound definition of success as “liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it”.

The yoga of work

True happiness arises from contentment at the core of your being, not from external circumstances. Finding balance between work, recreation, rest and relationships while appreciating what you have is the real mark of success. As Nobel Prize-winning novelist Albert Camus (1913-1960) pondered, “But what is happiness except the simple harmony between a man and the life he leads?”

Work can devour your quality of life when the goals of material gain and aggrandisement take precedence over the priorities of health, happiness and self-development. Being driven by beliefs that work is a labour rather than a love, an enemy to tolerate rather than an energy to enjoy, a thankless task rather than an enriching endeavour, clouds your vision of the liberating potential of fulfilling work.

Finding your most suitable occupation can be an elixir of health, as illustrated by a story in Norman Cousins’ Anatomy of an Illness. Cousins describes meeting the severely arthritic cellist Pablo Casals, whose crippled body miraculously transformed when he played Bach so that he was “no longer stiff and shrunken, but supple and graceful, completely free of arthritic coils”.

The “yoga of work”, detailed in the chapter on Karma yoga in the Bhagavad-Gita, explains that work fuelled by loving service and detached from the results gives you pleasure in the process and yields enlightenment. Work can therefore liberate your innate loving energies to enhance your life and the lives of those around you.

Practised with minimum stress and maximum mindfulness, work can become a meaningful meditation. This way you may work long hours and feel energised rather than depleted. Pathologically pushing yourself in a loveless job is a workaholic path driven by unbalanced motives. Yet working passionately for the love of it brings a healthy high, as artist and workophile Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) felt: “It is your work in life that is the ultimate seduction.”

Unemployment and retirement studies suggest your health suffers when you don’t have a fulfilling occupational outlet for your energy. Channelling energy and ability into work you love reaps abundant rewards, including financial. As author Mark Twain (1835-1910) said, “The more enjoyment you get out of your work, the more money you will make.” Naturally, there will be challenges and sacrifices in the process, but your confidence and self-esteem will strengthen as you face life’s tests rather than hide from them.

How to attract enriching employment

Cultivate a positive attitude: Author Louise Hay advises: “Saying ‘I hate my job’ will get you nowhere. Declaring ‘I now accept a wonderful new job’ will open the channels in your consciousness to create that.” Instead of dissuading yourself with negative dialogue, repeat affirmations such as “Work is an expression of love”, “Success is self-development”, “My work is worthwhile”, “Earning money empowers me” and “I enjoy sharing my unique skills.”

Target your talents: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” said Confucius (551-479BC). Do some soul searching before you start job searching. Write a list of what you love to do and are good at. Discovering work suited to your talents and temperament may require help from a career counsellor or life coach.

Find your life’s work: Barbara Sher’s classic, I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was, discusses why we thrive when doing worthwhile work. To determine where your values lie, write two lists: five things I would like to contribute if I only had five years to live; five ways I would serve others if money and time were not an issue. Laurence Boldt says in Zen and the Art of Making a Living, “Your self-expression is your gift to the world. Discovering your life’s work is not a mechanical process of assembling facts; it is more a matter of trusting yourself.”

Determine your work style: Consider your ideal working situation — hours, workmates, environment, income and duties. The company you work for affects job satisfaction. Check out the corporate culture of your employer; it’s just as vital as your remuneration.

Volunteer for work experience: A new career path is forged by a persistent series of small steps rather than a terrifying leap into the unknown. Consider doing work experience in the area you’re interested in before making a commitment. Talk to people in that field to understand the pros and cons, accepting that every job has its highs and lows. There’s no perfect job, only the job perfect for you.

Make an immediate start: The ideal time and conditions are now! Abolish excuses and allocate time to work on your dream. Observe any avoidance tactics and negative feelings arise, then override them with gentle optimism. Surround yourself with supportive people and don’t share your ideas with negative people.

Persevere: Acknowledge encouraging signals en route. Maintain a vision of your ultimate aim and, as you liberate energy into meaningful productivity, allow the momentum to carry you onto greater goals. To reinforce progress, note down positive moves you’ve made each day towards the direction of your dreams.

Work it out: Minor adjustments can make a major difference to your current job. Altering your location, hours, time management, stress management and relating skills, along with pursuing extra training, can boost a flagging career.

Mix business with pleasure: Incorporating relaxing regimes into your workday melts mounting tension. Take an hourly break for a stretch, a snack or a chat. Power naps revive your energy to tackle work with more enthusiasm and clarity. Schedule a siesta into your daily routine, even if you have to build an under-desk cubby like George did in the TV series Seinfeld. And as comedy actor and UK National Slacker Day spokesperson Simon Pegg prescribes, “It is vital to understand the importance of doing nothing. Slacking is a necessity; it is Yin to activity’s Yang.”

Take time out before PHT (pre-holiday tension) mounts. Dr Mel Borins, author of Go Away Just for the Health of It, says people are less stressed after a holiday, their burnout levels reduce, their work efficiency improves and there’s less absenteeism.

If you can’t get away, Dr Jason Rutter of Manchester University suggests, “Relaxing at home or, better still, doing something you enjoy but don’t get enough time for, can help recharge your batteries, develop new skills and leave you with a better perspective on your working life.” So take time out to relax and reflect. After all, even God rested on the Sabbath.

Occupational hazards

Long hours: The long hours doctors work are a major stress factor contributing to their high suicide rate. Long hours also increase the risk of fatigue-related workplace accidents.

Deadlines: Sweden’s Karolinska Institute has revealed that workers are six times more likely to suffer a heart attack within 24 hours of a deadline.

Shiftwork: Working the graveyard shift may literally bring you closer to it, according to a study led by Dr Ludovic van Amelsvoort of Maastricht University which found that twice as many nightshift workers had irregular heart rates compared to day workers. A study by Professor Simon Folkard has revealed that insomnia, fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders and peptic ulcers increase with night work. Studies of shiftwork during World Wars I and II show a strong link between nightshifts and increased accident rates.

Bad boss: A bad boss can literally make your blood boil, as suggested by UK research carried out on 28 female healthcare workers who showed rising blood pressure readings in the group that felt their boss was unfair.

Co-worker conflict: Ireland’s Small Firms Association conducted a study in 2003 of 165,000 people who quit their jobs and found that a large percentage (38,000) had done so because of discord with co-workers.

Sick building syndrome: Poor air quality, toxic building/decorating materials, strong electromagnetic fields, fluorescent lighting and chemical cleaning agents create an unhealthy workplace.

Caroline Robertson

Caroline Robertson

Caroline Robertson is a naturopath and homoeopath with thirty years experience. For phone or skype consultations please contact

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