Can emotional work-related stress make you sick?

Can emotional work-related stress make you sick?

by James Porter February 13, 2020

Yes it can. But the operative word here is can. It’s not automatic. Just about any job with emotional work-related stress will affect different workers in different ways. Some will do fine handling levels of stress that would break another person while others will have trouble dealing with a level of stress that still another person might hardly notice. It all depends on your stress sensitivity. And that varies from person to person.

I read an amazing story years ago in the New York Times Sunday Magazine (https://www.nytimes.com/2003/07/27/magazine/who-s-a-hero-now.html) about 9 miners who were trapped in a coal mine in Western Pennsylvania for 77 hours. Of the nine miners who were trapped, 7 stopped working in the coal mine after they got out and sued the company. But two workers elected not to sue and returned to work, pretty much as if nothing had happened.

The other seven miners suffered textbook cases of PTSD, needing lots of therapy while taking all sorts of pills for anxiety and depression. They were plagued by nightmares and several men reported being afraid of things that never bothered them before, like the sound of running water. (The mine shaft they were trapped in was slowly filling up with water from an adjacent mine.)

So that’s why I started this article off by saying that emotional work-related stress CAN cause health serious problems. 7 out of the 9 miners suffered serious health consequences as a result of being trapped. This is how the NY Times article described miner Blaine Mayhugh’s symptoms. He complained of “depression, loneliness, loss of memory, migraine headaches, and sleeplessness.”

Another miner described taking a concoction of different medications, (“Paxil wasn’t strong enough.”) including anti-depressants, alcohol, anti-anxiety meds and even anti-psychotics.

Stress does different things to different people. One of the rescuers, Bob Long, who was paid $150,000 dollars for the rights to his story by Disney, (as were all the miners) was so overwhelmed by the sudden attention and fame, he started drinking heavily and eventually killed himself. One of the two miners who returned to work, decided to take a job above ground, only because his 10 year old son was so mortified by the incident that he started having nightmares (a symptom of PTSD) the minute his Dad said he was going back to work in the mine.

This story illustrates the different ways that stress affects us. We can experience a great trauma directly and not suffer any long-term consequences at all (like the two miners who went back to work). We can experience the trauma indirectly, like the child did, and suffer greatly. We can even experience stress over what may seem like good consequences initially, as exemplified by what happened to the rescuer. So when we ponder the question is emotional work-related stress going to lead to serious health problems, the answer is really up to the individual.

If you find yourself in a job with lots of emotional work-related stress, you need to consider your own personal resources: Are you overly stress sensitive or does stress just roll right off your back? Do you have any outlets for releasing stress like going to gym, meditating, or taking a yoga class? Do you have a good social-support network in place, when the work feels overwhelming? If you can check off all these boxes, then chances are the stress you are facing is not going to do any permanent damage. But if you don’t, you might want to consider looking for another form of employment.




James Porter
James Porter

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