Can stress from work make you sick? Absolutely.
Sloane was just out of business school when she took her first job as a marketing director for what she thought was an “awesome” boutique cosmetics brand, but she later discovered that the company was completely dysfunctional, she says. The core tenets and leadership style native to her workplace were adversely affecting her health — the stress of it all had even manifested physically.
“There was insane infighting among the management, and the women in charge were downright mean,” she explains. “I made the mistake of speaking up about it to HR and they forced me out of my job and left me to find another position somewhere else within the organization.”
Sloane says she was always a star performer at work so she couldn’t believe that, in essence, she’d been fired. It was ultimately one of the most stressful experiences of her life, and it was one that took a toll on her skin.
“Suddenly, I broke out in miserably, itchy hives all over my body,” she remembers. “I was covered in them, and they wouldn’t go away. They lasted nine weeks. I tried everything: antibiotics, seven doctors and tons of steroids that gave me moon face.”
Finally, she'd tried acupuncture and Chinese herbs; the hives started to go away the very next day, but it was a long, enduring journey.
Sloane eventually landed a new job with "some of the best people" she's ever worked with, but not before she’d learned that poor leadership, catty coworkers and an overall corrupt office culture could make one sick — literally. And hives, like Sloane’s, aren’t the only side affect of negative vibes at work.
“The main reason we might actually start to feel physically ill by being [stuck in bad jobs] is that the amount of stress they put us through ends up manifesting itself in the form of illness or ailments — and the reason why we start to feel ill after being exposed to stress for too long is because our body releases specific hormones to help us deal with stress when we encounter it,” explains Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics. “When we stress, our body releases a mixture of cortisol, epinephrine and norepinephrine to help increase our heart rate and allow us to deal with the stressful events as they occur (i.e. fight or flight mode). While this ‘survival mode’ has allowed us to survive for thousands of years as a species, it’s not something we would want to have to experience every single day.”
Backe urges employees not to normalize things that are unacceptable — that’s considered “Stockholm Syndrome,” he says, and it’s something we should all avoid at all costs, especially at our places of work. Of course, that’s easier said than done.
Nearly two-thirds of U.S. workers experience unfavorable working conditions, according to a 2015 survey by RAND. Another study conducted in the UK also found that there were more physical markers of stress in people who went from being unemployed to working in a bad job than in those who just remained unemployed.
It’s crucial, then, to be aware of the ways your workplace might be making you sick so you can find ways to combat them or look for employment elsewhere. Here are five more side effects on which to keep a close eye.
1. You have a weakened immune system.
Scientists have been studying the many ways stress weakens the immune system since the early 1980s when psychologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD and immunologist Ronald Glaser, PhD of the Ohio State University College of Medicine first started looking at links between stress and infection in medical students. The students’ immunity suffered every year from 1982 to 1992 under the stress test of a three-day exam period — they had fewer natural killer cells, which fight tumors and viral infections, they almost entirely stopped producing immunity-boosting gamma interferon, and infection-fighting T-cells responded only weakly to test-tube stimulation. This study opened the floodgates for more research in the subject area.
By 2004, Suzanne Segerstrom, PhD of the University of Kentucky and Gregory Miller, PhD of the University of British Columbia had nearly 300 studies on stress to review for their meta-analysis, which ultimately concluded that long-term or chronic stress can indeed ravage the immune system. For stress of any duration, however, all aspects of immunity consistently decline.
“If your work inhibits your ability to sleep, immune systems can dampen and recovery times can lengthen,” explains Zach Cordell, MS, RDN, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist at Cordell Nutrition Consulting. “Along with these, when individuals are tired, judgment is impaired and food choices are influenced. Some may state that your willpower is lessened and, as a result, you make poorer food choices.”
Of course, poor food choices can further weaken the immune system because the body needs nutrients to perform optimally.
“Since we spend most of our time at work this constant bombardment of stress can definitely lead to poor immunity and the increased risk of being sick,” agreed registered dietarian nutritionist Jeanette Kimszal. “Constant stress can lead to increased cortisol production. This also affects a rise in insulin leading to elevated blood sugar. There is constant stress on the pancreas to constantly produce blood sugar and cells become insulin resistant if they are no able to take in all the excess insulin in the blood stream. What can result is weakened immunity, weight gain, thyroid issues and diabetes.”
2. You experience gastrointestinal problems.
“Stress has such a profound impact on our immune systems that sufferers may experience a wide array of symptoms — one of the most common and dangerous outcomes of stress is the effect it has on the stomach and GI tract,” Backe explains. “Besides for weight problems and diarrhea, stress can cause extremely painful ulcers.”
According to Everyday Health, digestion is controlled by the enteric nervous system, which is composed of hundreds of millions of nerves that communicate with the central nervous system. The “flight or fight” mode in your central nervous system is activated with stress and shuts down blood flow, which can actually shut down digestion since the blood flow affects the contractions of your digestive muscles. Stress can also cause inflammation of the gastrointestinal system, which can make you more susceptible to infection.
3. You experience cognitive dysfunction.
“Being in a bad job can adversely affect a person's cognitive abilities, in that he or she can have decreased concentration, be more distracted, can make more mistakes or errors, miss things, etc.,” explains Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist.
A study that conducted reading, pattern and memory tests in more than 6,000 workers aged over 40 years old found that the number of hours worked each week affects a person’s cognitive ability. It’s, therefore, no surprise that if you were to add stress to those hours, it’d affect a person’s brain function even more. People who work odd hours or overtime in demanding jobs are also affected more than others.
4. You start having anxiety or depression.
“Examples of some emotional consequences of being in a toxic kind of job include low self-esteem, decreased self-confidence, diminished motivation, anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness and/or hopelessness, chronic anger and not feeling valued and/or a part of the team,” Thomas adds. “People tend to have the highest job satisfaction and a business tends to operate at its best when each employee feels he or she is contributing something of value to the company and works as part of a team cooperatively. When either or both of these are not allowed or experienced in one's job, it can destroy a person's morale, confidence and efforts.”
Can you be fired for having depression? No. It's illegal. However, your depression can lead to having to go on workers comp.
“I have seen people who get anxiety and lose sleep due to work stress,” adds licensed clinical social worker Hillary Marshall. “I have seen people who have had to go to the doctors and considered going on medication to cope with work stress. I have seen people who have had to go on workers comp after being bullied by coworkers, asking for help from the boss, and not receiving the needed support from the boss.”
If you're wondering, how do I overcome depression at work?, we have more resources for you here!
5. You have unintended weight loss or gain.
“Across the board, I have found that being in a ‘bad job’ tends to negatively affect a person's self-esteem, self-confidence and job motivation, regardless of what the industry or person's position is,” Thomas explains. “Unfortunately, the impact of being in a bad job whether due to a bad boss, co-workers and/or office culture can affect a person physically, emotionally and cognitively. Some physical symptoms a person can have include over- or under-sleeping, over- or under-eating, unintended weight gain or weight loss, feeling physically sluggish or physically tense, getting sick more frequently, suffering from headaches, backaches, gastrointestinal problems, etc.”
Excessive weight gain can lead to an increased risk of have heart disease, strokes, diabetes, cancer and depression. And extreme or rapid weight loss an also create physical demands on the body. Risks include gallstones, which occur in 12 to 25 percent of people losing large amounts of weight over several months, and dehydration.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.