Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Stressed out, but you won’t die from it

Published 30 June 2014 10:22, Updated 01 July 2014 15:27

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Stressed out, but you won’t die from it

Illustration: Karl Hilzinger

Is this you? Your heart is hammering faster than ever, you are sweating and you’ve not been running, and you are overwhelmed.

Congratulations, you are part of the nervous nation. You are stressed out like just about everybody else.

But here’s the good news: you are probably not on the way to a heart attack.

Despite a newly-discovered link between stress, raised white blood cells counts and heart attacks, one of Australia’s leading heart surgeons says chronic stress is something we can live with.

The Heart Foundation’s chief medical advisor, Professor James Tatoulis, said it is really only acute stress events, such as bereavement, that have a causal link to heart attacks.

As a far as the workplace goes, only shift work and social isolation have been proven to contribute to heart attacks in people who already have an underlying condition, he said.

The same association is not shown in people who just have “poor working conditions, bad bosses or inadequate reward for performance”. No matter how much we want to believe it.

Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School have found that people exposed to chronic stress had huge white blood cell counts.

Those white blood cells worsen inflammation in the arteries and – if those arteries are already thickened with plaque – can result in blood clots and heart attacks.

Tatoulis says this research adds to the body of knowledge about chronic heart disease, but he says it does not prove that stress can kill.

“To this point, we are not sure if white blood cells are involved in the creation of plaque, or are bystanders,” he says.

Cardiovascular disease (heart, stroke and blood vessel diseases) is the leading cause of death in Australia, killing one Australian every 12 minutes.

While death from heart attack is has fallen dramatically (by 39 per cent) over the past decade, non fatal attacks are also falling, thanks to a decline in smoking and better medical care.

This is not to say that the rising stress levels we suffer at work are acceptable.

The head of the School of Management at the Australian School of Management, Professor Chris Jackson, said employers have been lax in controlling stress levels.

“I don’t think they do enough. Managers would also be feeling stressed. They have their targets to meet and they have to run departments,” he says.

“They would probably agree stress levels are high, but I don’t know what they would do about it.”

Three out of four Australians say stress is affecting their health, and stress-related absence at work is costing employers about $30 billion per year.

Jackson blames some of this stress on the breakdown of the division between work and home.

“We were promised that being able to work at home would make life less stressful, we were promised computers would make life less stressful, but in fact, with constant emails and a constant need to produce, people work harder and longer hours than they have ever done before, with higher expectations,” he says.

“The increasing flexibility of the workforce ... so that people are contract labour. They don’t really know if they will continue to be employed for a long period of time, well that all adds to the stress too.

“I do think employers have a responsibility to reduce stress levels. Or maintain a level which is bearable.”

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