Top Cause Of Workplace Sickness Dubbed 'Black Death Of 21st Century'

It's been dubbed the "21st century equivalent of the Black Death." In the U.K., it's the most common reason employees take long-term sick leave. It costs American companies $300 billion a year. In Japan, it's a fatal epidemic.

It's stress.

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Stress has beaten out stroke, heart attack, cancer and back problems as the main reason British workers take four or more weeks away from the job, according to a new report by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. The Japan Ministry of Labor began publishing official statistics on "Karoshi" (death from overwork) in 1987, but the first case was documented in 1969, when a worker dropped dead of a stroke. He was 29.

The symptoms of stress are similar to those of someone in withdrawal from an addictive drug: finding it difficult to focus; losing your sense of humor; irritability; and shortened temper. Stress can also lead to under- and overeating, as well as smoking and drinking to excess. And in its most extreme forms it can result in stomach and bowel problems, heart disease and stroke.

"Cortisol, the hormone that the body releases under stress, is the strongest immunosuppressant known," write evolutionary biology researchers Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. When Sheldon Cohen studied the sleep habits of 153 healthy men and women and then exposed them to the virus that causes the common cold, he found that individuals who slept less than seven hours per night were three times as likely to get sick.

Human beings haven't evolved to cope with the levels of work in modern society, they claim. For a healthy and long life, people should model themselves on our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

"If you hunt or gather just enough low-fat food to forestall serious hunger pangs," they write, "and spend the rest of your time in low-stress activities, such as telling stories by the fire, taking extended hammock-embraced naps, and playing with children, you'd be engaged in the optimal lifestyle for human longevity."

Unfortunately, that kind of lifestyle isn't particularly practical today, and increasingly less so. In what Mother Jones magazine dubs the "The Great Speedup" middle-income and professional Americans have been working more and more hours since the late 1970s. In that same time period, a full-time American male worker has seen his real wages decline.

The definition of speedup is "an employer's demand for accelerated output without increased pay." It used to be a household word, but today it's so normal it's hardly acknowledged.

The recession has only piled on the stress. And not just for millions of laid-off workers, but for the ones lucky enough to keep their jobs too. While economic production recovered to near-recession levels months ago, Mother Jones notes, the employment rate has not. Not hardly, and particularly not in the U.S. That lost productivity has been made up by those still clinging to their posts.

In the U.K. report, stress was a more common affliction at companies that had announced redundancies.

America is also notoriously frugal in its vacation time. We're one of only five countries in the world without legally mandated paid vacation time, and over a quarter of American workers don't receive any. We're one of only six countries without paid maternity leave (the others are Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Samoa, and Swaziland). We're one of only handful of countries in the world that doesn't guarantee any paid sick days. When 46 percent of Americans have to skip work from sickness, they lose the day's wages, and risk being fired.

Americans work more than most people in the world, 122 hours more a year than the British, and nearly 10 weeks more than Germans. And the U.S. economy has swelled, thanks to this labor, doubling in size over the last 30 years.

"We're not sharing in these productivity gains," says John de Graaf, the national coordinator for Take Back Your Time, an advocacy group pushing for paid vacation time and other worker protections, and the author of the forthcoming book "What's the Economy for Anyway?."

And the extra work has taken a toll on America's health. A 2007 study by Emory University's school of public health found that Americans 50 years or older were more likely to suffer from cancer, diabetes and heart disease than Europeans at the same age. "We have more chronic diseases in old age," says de Graaf. "And those are very expensive diseases."

To really battle stress, de Graaf believes we need to reduce our country's vast disparities in wealth. "Taming inequality is the most important thing. The top one percent is garnering nearly a quarter of all the income in this country. It's outrageous, really."

"There's no silver bullet here," he admits, but he believes increasing the minimum wage would be one powerful way to reduce the psychological burden on many Americans. Giving workers greater control over their hours would also go far. A law passed in Netherlands in 2000 allows employees to request a reduction in their hours, from five days to four, for example. Their wages are cut proportionately and their benefits pro-rated, but the employer must grant the request, unless it's at an intolerable financial cost to the company.

Such a bill would likely get strangled on arrival in America's political system. Not only does the lack of universal health care make such a law immensely more complicated, but America's political attitudes are in general more hostile to mandates on business.

De Graaf helped Rep. Alan Grayson draft his "Paid Vacation Act" back in 2009, which would, if successful, have required companies with more than 100 employees to offer one week of paid vacation time.

"We were attacked for that as if we were advocating the end of human civilization," says De Graaf. The bill found only five Democratic co-sponsors.

A few companies these days seem to understand the importance of workers' health and well-being to productivity and profits. Zappos, Patagonia, and a handful of other firms offer flexible policies to balance work and life, and have become sought-after destinations for young talent.

But this doesn't necessarily represent a tidal change.

"This is going to take rules," says de Graaf. "It's going to take legislation. We need regulations. A football game doesn't work if one team can go in wearing brass knuckles."

It used to be the oft-repeated dream of economists and philosophers that productivity could reach a point where human beings would only need to a work a few hours a day, and still provide for all their needs.

More than 200 years ago Benjamin Franklin wrote: "If every Man and Woman would work for four Hours each Day on something useful, that Labour would produce sufficient to procure all the Necessities and Comforts of Life, Want and Misery would be banished out of the World, and the rest of the 24 hours might be Leisure and Pleasure."

Since Franklin's day, efficiency has increased mightily, but the 20-hour work week is too ludicrous an idea to pass the lips of any mainstream politician.

In an interview in last month's Businessweek, Mitt Romney said "the primary role of the government is to encourage the innovation and risk-taking and entrepreneurship of the American people."

"That would come as news to Thomas Jefferson," says de Graaf. "He said on a number of occasions that the only purpose of government was to increase the happiness of its citizens."

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Claire Gordon

Staff Writer

Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.

Follow Claire on Twitter. Email Claire at claire.gordon@teamaol.com. Add Claire to your Google+ circles.

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pawpaw

for those who complain about misleading or false titles on these articles...just remember..they arent here to inform you...they are here to grab your attention and draw you to it...where you will be inundated with pop ups..adds...even on videos..you have to see an add before it plays....its all about the money....and if you look on this page...you will see money paying advertisers....

October 10 2011 at 6:58 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
jja709

Why does every workplace picture display a minority? 98% of the british aren't dark skinned

October 09 2011 at 6:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jja709's comment
Misipi6gun

It's called political correctness .... they have to be seen in almost every big story somehow , usually as the leader or heard from somehow .... in this picture it looks like the white lady just may have stress syndrome to the point of a nervous breakdown for just having to work near him .... he maybe even had the outrageous audacity to sexually harrass her ; which is a common malady on most any job or just any place in in everyday life where you have the 2 races to close to each other .

October 10 2011 at 7:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Syllogizer

To call 'karoshi' a 21st century equivalent of the Black Death is SO over-the-top? It shows the reporter who came up with this phrase has no clue. The same goes, alas, for reporters who repeat it. Grow up and show some responsibility: there is NO COMPARISON between stress and the Black Death.

October 09 2011 at 4:25 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
bcaken

As you may have read or seen in past financial articles, in most cases in the free market, when the minimum wage has increased, unemployment goes up due to the marginal status of a lot of small businesses. The same is true of regulations and taxes.......they increase, people lose their jobs, except the people making the regulations: government, which has always increased. Now it's the government's turn to experience some unemployment.

October 09 2011 at 3:14 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
quickerbob

who figured out that stress cost 300 billion dollars a year and how did he come up with that number

October 09 2011 at 1:08 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
James

Romney says the government is supposed to protect the innovation of the entrepreneurs, Bravo! Then sign this stuff into law and give the workers their vacations. If the big bosses at the top want their profits, they can just expand their innovations and get more cash. After all, necessity is the mother of all invention, and if they really need all that money, they'll find a way to make it. All the politicians these days are doing is protecting the status quo and their own fat wallets. They're betraying their own positions.

October 09 2011 at 10:54 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
briza2002

our economy is not any worse than the economies of countries that provide vacations and healthcare to their workers. In fact, the crime rate is lower in those countries. America has become a country of greed to the point of not caring for their citizens. We make a big deal about recycling things, yet we throw away people. We need serious, humane change.

October 09 2011 at 8:06 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Sparticus

Corporations cut to the bone anything that may have been hurting the bottom line, employee's live a daily existence with the possibility of redundancy looming around the corner, unions are on the verge of collapse, Republicans are calling for the removal of worker standards and practices that have taken hundreds of years to be enacted, the White House can't stand alone and, solve these problems.

Why? Because that's not the way this country works. All levels of government have to work together and learn what it means to be a part of the' "Loyal Opposition"

It has been proven the corporations have been able to increase profits as well as benefits and bonuses for the White Collar section of their workforce even though it was the Blue Collar workers in need of solid monetary income relief that the realization of Corporate Streamlining may and, did provide to balance sheets all across America.

The majority of the corporations in America were not only able to make it through the recession but, use the recession to implement cost cutting measures aimed at rank and file reduction rather than focusing on Management Efficiency Needs that could have saved the majority of the workforce simply by focusing on Top Down Efficiency rather than Bottom Up Employee Reduction. In a recession what is most important? Keeping people working or, having trillions of dollars in the bank so the stock prices stay high. I say keep America working and the stock market will take care of it's self. It would do a lot to cut down on stress that's for sure.

Sparticus

October 09 2011 at 2:35 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Sparticus

Nobody wants to talk about the root cause of stress in America or, around the world because while the truth may set you free in most instances but, in this instance it will get you fired.

Here's the truth; in America, when you get to work, leave any idea of Freedom, Liberty or, Democracy outside the building before going to work. If you can do this, your stress level will drop considerably. The problem with that idea, especially in America, is that, we have been taught that hard work, honesty and integrity are the way's to get to the top. If that were true, Americans would be the happiest workers on the planet. But, it's not the truth.

You decide your going to get a job for a large corporation and put your dreams on hold because, let's face it, dreams cost money. So, you get the job and decide you are going to make the best of your surroundings, move up the ladder, make as much money as possible so you can get back to the work that makes you happy, Acting for instance. What you never counted on was working for a corporation that cares about nothing except making profit.

What is the best way to increase profit? Competition. What's the best way to create a competitive environment at work? Create competition between employee's. What is the best way to create competition between fellow employee's? Pit them against each other in competition, who can sell the most, work the hardest, get the most clients, make the clients happier than the other person basically, impress management with numbers. You thought you were going to be rewarded for being the best person you could be not beating a co-worker out of a job. Right away you are made to become a Gladiator, forced to win at any cost or, lose your job to the better or, more ruthless employee.

In thirty years, the middle class has disappeared but, people are still willing to fight for the American dream. Corporations know how to take advantage of your want for a better life for your family, they push you as hard as possible for as long as possible until either you kill your self from over work or, you decide to stand up for yourself, either way you will find yourself escorted out of the building, beaten, broken and broke.

Take my advise, never give up on work that makes you happy. There may be billions of us out there but, there are only so many things to do. If you always try to surround yourself with people who care more about being happy to work rather than, working to be happy your stress life will be non-existent.

Wish I had more space, I could tell you some real horror stories about corporate America. I will leave you with this little gem. Corporations own or, are a part of 99.8% of all business in America. Work to reverse the number, work together for a common goal. It's been proven to be an more effective way to achieve the desired outcome for all of us.

Sparticus



.

October 09 2011 at 2:20 AM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Sparticus's comment
hmlnmelaku

Thank you for your essay. I hope one day people will be able to see the real reason of life.

October 09 2011 at 2:26 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
lewiskellye

Do what I did: start a business and work your ass off for 22 years, then retire at age 45. Now, my only task each day is raising my children. And no, I don't find that to be very stressful. Only in America can you be anything that you want to be. Lazy sheep expect someone else to pay for their vacations and make their lives good. Don't let the government be your mommy.

October 08 2011 at 11:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to lewiskellye's comment

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