There was an article in the New York Times recently about a steel mill that closed in Lackawanna, NY. Within two months of the closing three former employees of the plant had suffered from heart attacks and two of these attacks were fatal. According to the Times, "A growing body of research suggests that layoffs can have profound health consequences. One study found that layoffs more than double the risk of heart attack and stroke among older workers." Other studies have shown that layoffs can reduce life expectancy and increase the risk of developing "a stress-related health problem, like diabetes, arthritis or psychiatric issues."
The Times goes on to say that the focus of this research is on the exact connection between job loss and poor health and how stress ties into the equation. "Acute stress can cause biochemical changes that trigger heart attacks but job loss and chronic stress can also lead to lifestyle changes that damage health." So the plant closing may not be directly responsible for what happened to these workers since laid off workers tend to smoke more, drink more and exercise less. All these factors, plus a prevalence of depression seems to be leading to an increase in heart problems after a lay off.
One study of workers suggests that "persistent perceived job insecurity" is a powerful predictor of poor health and might be more damaging than the job loss itself. But in the case of the Lackawanna Steel Mill all the damage occurred after the factory was closed down for good.
I personally found it interesting that one of the men was asking for Tums at work before he died. After my father was admitted to the hospital 17 years ago complaining of chest pains he jokingly told me over the phone, "The way to know that you're having a heart attack, is when four Tums doesn't do you any good." He died of a massive heart attack three days later.
And as one doctor explained to me later, sometimes the very first sign of a cardiac trouble is sudden death. And it's been documented over and over that in certain cases, extreme stress can lead to a fatal heart attack. Intuitively we all see the connection between layoffs, stress and health. But it's nice to see that research is confirming what we knew all along.
See my next blog for advice on what to do if you or someone you know is going through a period of layoffs and/or downsizing.