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If you’ve been to see your doctor any time in the last ten or twenty years, you may have noticed one question popping up more often, no matter what ailment sent you to their office: “Are you under any stress?” What you may not realize is that this isn’t just your doctor making polite conversation, but asking for crucial information. The wrong answer may not kill you that day, but it could delay an accurate diagnosis.
What you also may not realize, is that the question about stress is directly related to a series of medical studies that has been going on for decades: the Whitehall Studies.
What are the Whitehall Studies?
The Whitehall Studies refer to a research project that has been conducted through University College London (UCL) since 1985. These researchers, led by Michael Marmot, have been following the same cohort (group) of British Civil Service employees since then, and in February, 2008, they announced a major finding: there is a definite link between workplace stress and heart disease.
By studying the same group of people over more than twenty years, researchers were able to really investigate the way workplace conditions impact us over time, and how they produce specific health conditions. The Whitehall Studies documented how Civil Service workers felt about their jobs, but it also monitored blood pressure, heart rate variability, and how much cortisol (known colloquially as the “stress hormone”) was present in their blood. Also collected was information about diet, exercise, smoking, and drinking. Finally, they kept records of how many participants in the study developed coronary heart disease (CHD) or suffered a heart attack, and how many of them had died as a result.
The results proved something that had been long suggested: chronic work stress contributes to the development of coronary heart disease – especially in men and women under fifty years old. The Whitehall Studies also discovered something else: heart disease isn’t affected just by stress over being busy, or working too many hours, but by one’s status in the workplace. This was why the British Civil Service was chosen: it’s an organization with specific hierarchy, and while the easy assumption would be that the more responsibility one has, the more stressed one is. In fact the reverse is true: the lower you are on the totem pole at work, the less you perceive yourself being in control of your own destiny, the more stressed you are.
The Whitehall Studies took their research a step further and explored the personal habits of the study participants, and while they did find that those in the lower hierarchical levels were more likely to engage in unhealthy habits like smoking and excessive drinking, and eating poorly, even among those who didn’t participate in such behaviours, lower status meant more stress and a higher chance of developing heart disease.
What Does This Mean For Your Health?
Dr. Marmot himself offered a list of various ways the findings from the Whitehall Studies impacted everyone’s health, and how they should be incorporated into healthcare policies around the world. The actual list is aimed at policy makers, but many of the points he made are things we, as regular people, need to be aware of. Among them:
• Stress harms health. Not just by increasing cortisol. The study also indicated that stress was related to insulin resistance.
• Social and economic circumstances affect your health throughout life. A constant struggle to make ends meet takes its toll on your body.
• “We say that job security increases health, wellbeing and job satisfaction.” Marmot also says that the flip side of this is equally true – that job instability (lack of job security) and unemployment cause your health to suffer
Marmot’s entire presentation included ten points, but each was a variation on the same theme – if you are stressed at work, if you aren’t certain your job will be there in the morning, or if you are unemployed, you are more likely to develop serious illness, including heart disease.
The findings of the Whitehall Studies impact us in another way, however, in the benefits we get through employment. Over the last ten years, for example, there has been a greater availability of wellness benefits in American benefits packages. These range from things like on-site health care and exercise facilities (exercise doesn’t just tone your body, it releases endorphins that improve your mood), to employee assistance programs that work within the scope of health insurance to provide mental health options.
The results of the Whitehall Studies are still being studied by policy makers around the world, but wherever you live, wherever you work, there is no doubt that the more stress you feel; the less physically healthy you will remain. There is a popular line of self-help books called “Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow,” but perhaps a better phrase would be, “Do what you love, good health will follow.”
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