Most workers will experience job stress at some point in their lives. But what effect does it have on our health? According to new research, work stress damages our health just as much as exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke.

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Workers with high job demands are 50% more likely to be diagnosed with a medical condition, according to the findings of the study.

Researchers from Harvard Business School in Boston, MA, and Stanford University, CA, publish their findings in the journal Behavioral Science & Policy Association.

Earlier this year, a Spotlight from Medical News Today revealed some of the surprising implications stress can have for health, including increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this year’s “Stress in America” survey from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that money is the primary cause of stress in the US. A close second, however, is work, with 60% of Americans reporting this as a main cause of stress.

According to the authors of this latest study – including Joel Goh of Harvard Business School – there has been extensive research into the causes of workplace-induced stress.

“However, policy efforts to tackle the ever-increasing health costs and poor health outcomes in the United States have largely ignored the health effects of psychosocial workplace stressors such as high job demands, economic insecurity, and long work hours,” they add.

For their study, the team conducted a meta-analysis of 228 studies that looked at the effects of numerous work stressors – such as job insecurity, family-work conflict, high job demands and long work hours – on four health outcomes: the presence of a diagnosed medical condition, self-reported poor physical health, self-reported poor mental health and mortality.

The results of the analysis revealed that workers with high job demands are 50% more likely to be diagnosed with a medical condition than those without this stressor. Job insecurity was linked to a 50% greater risk of poor physical and mental health, while long work hours were associated with a 20% greater mortality risk.

The team also compared the health effects of work stressors with those of secondhand smoke exposure, finding that the health outcomes of each factor were similar. They write:

The health effects of secondhand smoke exposure are widely viewed as sufficiently large to warrant regulatory intervention. For example, secondhand smoke is recognized as a carcinogen, and smoking in enclosed public places, including workspaces, is banned in many states in the United States and in many other countries.

The results of our meta-analysis show that workplace stressors generally increased the odds of poor health outcomes to approximately the same extent as exposure to secondhand smoke.”

As such, Goh and colleagues say that as well as focusing on improving health behaviors – such as increasing exercise and reducing smoke exposure – in the workplace, policymakers should address workplace practices that contribute to job-induced stress.

“For example,” they add, “possible job redesigns could involve limiting working hours, reducing shift work and unpredictable working hours, and encouraging flexible work arrangements that help employees to achieve a better balance between their work life and their family life.”

“Unless and until companies and governments more rigorously measure and intervene to reduce harmful workplace stressors,” they continue, “efforts to improve people’s health – and their lives – and reduce health care costs will be limited in their effectiveness.”

In 2012, MNT reported on a study published in The Lancet that linked work stress to a 23% increased risk of heart attack.